Linking language and security in Ukraine

ZOiS Spotlight 17/2018 by Gwendolyn Sasse (9 May 2018)

Book market in L’viv, selling books in Russian and Ukrainian. © Alamy

The Ukrainian parliament is in the process of considering the bill ‘On Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language’, which is based on a monolingual definition of the Ukrainian state and aims to boost the knowledge and use of Ukrainian in public life. The political discourse links the Ukrainian language explicitly to the security and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. This securitisation of the language issue partly reflects the influence of the ongoing war in the Donbas on Ukrainian politics.

The bill under consideration, which is likely to be adopted, stipulates that every Ukrainian citizen must know Ukrainian and that Ukrainian-language proficiency is a condition for employment in the government, the civil service, and the legal, educational, and medical sectors. Language use in private and religious settings is excluded from the law, so in daily life the immediate changes will be limited—apart from an increase in Ukrainian-language media content.

However, there will be a long-term effect of the overall language policy regime, of which the current bill forms one part. The bill on education that entered into force in September 2017 is another part. That legislation determines that while there is room for minority languages at primary school level, secondary education has to be in Ukrainian.

‘Everyday Bilingualism’

In Ukraine’s 2001 census, 67.5 per cent of the population listed Ukrainian as their native language—a symbolic category that cannot be equated with actual language use. According to KIIS survey data from 2012 to 2017 (excluding, for the sake of comparison, Crimea and the non-government-controlled Donbas, which are missing from the latter years), in 2012 about 32 per cent of respondents said that they spoke mostly or only Russian in their daily lives. By 2017, this figure had decreased to just below 27 per cent, mostly due to a significant decrease in the number of those speaking only Russian.

These figures suggest a process of ‘de-Russification’ from below. The surveys also indicate widespread bilingualism: from 2012 to 2017, the number of those saying that they spoke equally Ukrainian and Russian rose from 16 to 24 per cent, and there was a slight increase in the share of those indicating that they spoke ‘mostly in Ukrainian’ (from 12 to 13 per cent) and ‘mostly in Russian’ (from 11 to 13 per cent). Thus, overall about 50 per cent of respondents recorded a bilingual language practice in 2017.

The widespread existence of this ‘everyday bilingualism’ in Ukraine, mostly in the south-east, is something outside observers have routinely missed. On the one hand, everyday bilingualism makes language a less conflictual issue on the ground than the political discourse at times suggests. On the other hand, bilingualism comes in different shapes and sizes, and the incentives to actively speak Ukrainian may be limited, as, for example, the widespread use of Russian in Kyiv demonstrates

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych introduced the status of ‘regional language’ in thirteen regions where the population speaking a minority language—this label included Russian—constituted at least 10 per cent of the regional population. The sensitivity of this issue was illustrated by the fact that the proposed abolition of the law in early 2014 after the ouster of Yanukovych was put on hold by then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov and his successor, Petro Poroshenko. The law was struck down on procedural grounds by the constitutional court in February 2018.

Changing concepts of identity

Although ‘identity’ is a frequently used concept in the social sciences and in public discourse more generally, it is difficult to grasp empirically. Crisis moments offer insights into identities and potential identify shifts. [1] But even at such moments, what exactly do respondents and researchers mean when they talk about ‘ethnic identity’, ‘nationality’, or ‘native language’? These terms escape fixed definitions, and their meaning changes over time in people’s perceptions and official usage. Survey research therefore needs to reflect this reality, for example by combining open and closed questions and by contextualising the meaning of the survey categories across different linguistic and political settings.

Recent survey research demonstrates that a ‘Ukrainian identity’, identification with Ukraine as the ‘homeland’, and ‘Ukrainian citizenship’ have been preserved and strengthened through experiences of protest and war. [2] Contrary to state fears and policies, bilingualism does not undermine the notion of a Ukrainian identity or Ukrainian citizenship as an expression of a shared perception of the polity. If there has been a change, it points to a more conscious association of bilingualism with being a Ukrainian citizen.

My own surveys of those most directly affected by the war—the population in both the Kyiv-controlled and the non-government-controlled Donbas as well as the displaced in Ukraine and those who fled to Russia—show that language (mainly native language, occasionally language use at home) carries weight in explaining the likelihood of mixed (Ukrainian-Russian) or civic Ukrainian identities.

Interestingly, it is not only one native language—Ukrainian—that emerges as the key factor. A self-reported dual native language—Ukrainian and Russian—has a similar effect, in particular on self-reported identity shifts towards feeling ‘more Ukrainian’ and ‘more mixed’. Our data shows that feeling ‘more Ukrainian’ across all four populations and Ukrainian citizenship in the case of the population in the Kyiv-controlled Donbas explicitly and simultaneously accommodate mono- and bilingual language identities.

The current political climate in Ukraine does not allow much space for a discussion about bilingualism as a desirable and stabilising feature in a state characterised by diversity. But even if the policy goal is to increase the use of Ukrainian in public life, the commitment to the Ukrainian state should not be reduced to identifying with or speaking only Ukrainian.


[1] For an in-depth discussion of the options and challenges associated with this type of research, see the special issue of Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 2-3 on ‘Identity Politics in Times of Crisis: Ukraine as a critical case” (edited by Olga Onuch, Henry Hale and Gwendolyn Sasse) (open access until 31 May 2018) and the article by Henry Hale and Olga Onuch in this issue.

[2] Ibid., see the articles by Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson, Volodymyr Kulyk and Gwendolyn Sasse and Alice Lackner.

Prof. Dr. Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of ZOiS.


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Turning Russians into Balts?

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Migration flows from Ukraine: changing trends