June 17, 2008

The Kremlin has once again raised the hoary issue of the rights of Russian language speakers in Ukraine, apparently as part of its campaign to make Russian the official lingua franca of the CIS and to apply more pressure on its neighbor during a time of strained relations.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s loyalist, Sergei Lavrov, sent a note to Kyiv on June 16, saying that “Moscow proceeds from the fact that the question of the Russian language in Ukraine should take into account the legal rights and interests of millions of Ukrainian citizens who consider it [the Russian language] as their native one, which they use in everyday life” (Interfax, June 17).

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry calmly replied that Russia should take more interest in the provisions for the cultural and educational needs of Ukrainians with Russian passports in Russia. “I would advise [Russia] to worry about the functioning of the Ukrainian language in Russia and take an interest in the educational and cultural conditions for Ukrainians in Russia, and in the number of Ukrainian language schools in Moscow,” Vasyl Kyrylych, the spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, told Interfax-Ukraine on June 17.

Russia’s campaign to impose the Russian language once again on former Soviet republics began in 2003. Earlier the Kremlin’s main concern was centered on the rights of ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic States, but within a few years, as Russian nationalism–many claim it is chauvinism–became the quasi ideology of the Putin administration, the concept was broadened to include Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians and others.

Kyrylych said that 442,000 children studied in 1,500 schools in Ukraine with Russian as their main language of education and 31 universities educated Russian language teachers. Moreover, 2,343 media outlets were registered in Ukraine as Russian language outlets, Ukrainian libraries had 59 million titles in Russian and the Russian language could be heard on the streets throughout Ukraine.”

The Russian complaint came at a time when both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are intensifying the campaign to promote Russian as a global language on par with English. On June 10 Medvedev called for Russia to be assigned an Internet domain name in the Cyrillic script as part of a Kremlin drive to promote Russian as a global language (The Guardian, June 11).

Medvedev stated that 300 million people worldwide (mostly within the borders of the former Soviet Union) used Russian media and that a Cyrillic domain name would be a key part of raising the importance of Russian as a language, a task he said was his personal priority as president.

To these ends, the Russian government created a web site ( in both Russian and English to promote the Russian language (Reuters, July 2, 2007).

A day earlier, Putin, addressing the International Congress of Russian Press, pledged the government’s support for the Russian language foreign press. Presumably, he did not have in mind Russian language newspapers in the United States, the Czech Republic or Canada, which appear to be well-funded and enjoy a stable readership among the émigré communities.

“Looking after the Russian language and expanding the influence of Russian culture are crucial social and political issues,” Putin stated, adding, “We plan to provide every support for the Russian-language press, while respecting their right to independent coverage, including that of events taking place in Russia … and respecting the legislation and sovereignty of the countries in which they work” (RIA Novosti, June 10).

The Putin-Lavrov campaign appears to be aimed more at former Soviet republics than Western or Israeli Russian émigrés, reputed by the Kremlin to be starved of Russian-language media.

A spokesman for the Kremlin-supported Institute of the CIS, Vladimir Zharikhin, told on June 11 not to politicize the issue of the Russian language in post-Soviet states. “This is a humanitarian mission, first and foremost. Studying the Russian language and culture is one of the ways to become a part of world culture,” he said.

The political goals of the language offensive also seem to have little in common with the cultural values that the Kremlin associates with the Russian language. Instead, it appears that this policy is designed to destabilize democratically elected pro-Western governments in former Soviet republics intent upon re-establishing their national identity and languages after years of official Russification by communist Moscow. Across the former republics of the Soviet Union, only Belarus still recognizes Russian as a state language.

The timing of Moscow’s linguistic protest coincides with the broader campaign against the Ukrainian government’s plans to obtain a Membership Action Plan to join NATO in the future and to remove the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Crimea.

The call for Russian to become a “second” official language in Ukraine is geared to support the pro-Russian “Party of the Regions,” Putin’s favorite Ukrainian party, headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and to encourage secessionist tendencies in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as leverage against the present government of Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko.