Linguistic Differences and Ukraine’s Post-2014 Crisis

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Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis left the whole world perturbed and questioned how close long allays such as Russia and Ukraine could result in a war. Some commentators of the crises have linked the source of the war with the history of the two separatist movements dating back to the Soviet Union. Others have pointed their blame to the Russian government which they think it provoked the crisis from the outside thus posing an external threat to Ukraine that led to intensified war in Donbas. Other analysts of the crisis think that Russia’s indulgence in the war was of economic interests in Ukraine’s regions that are dominated by Russians. Authors hitherto have questioned Russia’s aggression on the national identity by Ukraine since as well. Some think that Russia has always wanted to take control of west though indirectly.  This essay argues that Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis were influenced to some extent by linguistic differences mainly between the Russian and Ukrainians speakers, among other factors.

In the recent past, national identity has become a big issue in the Ukraine communities. The issue of national identity cuts across individual and even collective perspective regarding culture. Most a times when people define nationhood on dimensions of civic and ethnic perspectives. In such cases, the populations involved base their nationhood on their rich culture, religion as well as their language. Ukraine is polarized on the people’s feeling of “nationhood identity.” In a survey done in 2014, residents were asked to characterize themselves based on a 20-words list that sought to know how people associated themselves with the nationhood or civic members of Ukraine. The survey stated that most of the Russian speakers identified themselves as either “member of my city” or “resident of my region” whereas Ukrainian speakers had identified themselves as “Ukrainians.” (Kulyk, 2016). The same survey showed that most of Donbas residents indicated that they are residents of “their region” without a sense of nationhood (Kulyk, 2016). It should be noted that Russian speakers dominate Donbas and it is a place that experienced an intense crisis during Ukraine’s post-2014 war. This is a clear indication that Ukraine was polarized on the linguistic and ethnic basis.

Although the 2013-2014 crisis in Ukraine raised eyebrows about the country’s cohesion, the division between west and east in the country dates back from the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Russian is the dominant language in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, and it is the main language in the Crimean peninsula region (BBC, 2014).  The linguistic differences in eastern Ukraine proved to be dangerous in post-2014 crisis. Crimea has the majority of the residents who speak in Russian language and strongly identify themselves as an ethnic group with Russian origin while in western parts of Ukraine; the main language is Ukrainian with the majority of residents identifying themselves with central Europe. Even in the 2010 general elections of Ukraine, the two ethnic groups were significant in the voting patterns that were witnessed. Majority of Russian speakers voted for Yanukovych while the Ukrainian speakers showed loyalty to the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko (BBC, 2014).

According to 2001 Ukraine census, the majority of Crimean residents identified themselves as Russian ethnic group and maintained that Russian is their language while their Ukrainian counterparts identified themselves as Ukrainians and regarded Ukrainian as their native language (BBC, 2014). The role of difference languages in Ukraine’s post-2014 Euromaidan protests is huge. After the protests by Ukrainians against the government of Yanukovych, most of the Russian media portrayed the protesters as anti-Russians who opposed the government on the ethnic basis (Kazdobina, 2017). Russia used their media to spread false narratives against the Ukraine, which led to hatred between the two linguistic populations.

Some scholars have argued that the crisis in Ukraine was intensified by the continuous oppression of the Russian speakers by the previous administrations with bred animosity between the two linguistic groups. The language issue was the key factor in the Kremlin-led separatist war that was fought in the eastern part of Ukraine. However, others have argued that the dominance of Russian speaking in the major Ukrainian cities poses a threat to Ukraine’s government efforts to make Ukrainian a national language (Kazdobina, 2017). In a survey done by the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research, the majority of Russians said that they would resist if they were forced to speak in Ukrainian. However, Ukrainians felt they were refugees in their own country since they were unable to receive news or medical prescriptions in the Ukrainian language in some regions (Kazdobina, 2017). The fact that Ukrainian speakers felt oppressed by their Russian speakers’ counterparts, they were very bitter during the 2013-2014 crisis. The Ukrainian residents in the western part of the country worry about their cultural identity and the threat posed by the Russian-speaking people who by far outnumber them. Russian speakers are the dominant ethnic group in the eastern part of Ukraine while the Ukrainian core speakers dominate only L’viv city of Ukraine compared to the Russian-speakers’ dominance in nine cities of Ukraine (Petro, 2014).

Even after two decades of self-governance and independence in Ukraine, more than 60 percent of the newspapers, 83 percent of the total journals, 87 percent of the books as well as 72 percent of the local television programs are aired in Russian language (Petro, 2014). According to a report on the Ukrainian media in 2012, more that 44 percent of airtime in local radios and televisions is set for Russian programs and only 28 percent of the airtime is for the Ukrainian language.. Such efforts were met with vehement opposition from the Russian-speakers with a campaign on “let every Ukrainian speak in their mother tongue of their choice” (Petro, 2014). The slogan was adopted by Party of Regions, which was led by Victor Yanukovych and attracted support from the majority of Russian speakers who felt that the party served their interests. This event was a significant determiner of the political loyalty in Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis.

The fact that more than 80 percent of websites in Ukraine are in the Russian language can be used to explain why there was an increased influence by social media and internet at large on Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis. The survey done by the International Republican Institute in May 2014 showed that more than 62 percent of Ukrainian citizens rely much on internet news. In addition, the percentage of Ukrainians using the internet for news are members of “Vkontakte” which is the largest social network of Russia. The network was used by the Russian in their language to inform their counterparts in Russia that the situation in Ukraine was proving hard to tolerate citing that they had been discriminated by the authorities (Filatova, 2014). The social media spread a lot of false information to pro-Russians that were against the government thus intensifying the crisis. Scholars have stated that since independence in 1991, the two major linguistic groups in the country has never united owing to their language differences. This division has been observed even in the voting patterns in the last two decades of voting and political loyalty in Ukraine (Marples, 2015). The regions that are dominated by the Ukrainian speakers have always voted in favour of the western candidates while those that are dominated by the Russian speakers are pro-Communists. Arefev, (2013) stated that around 42 million people in Ukraine were fluent in Russian and that 80 percent of the population use the Russian language at public offices. Nuzhdin et al. (2013) noted that most of the Ukrainian speakers played a pivotal role in Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014 (Marples, 2015).

Prior the 2014 elections where the Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk did not take part due to the protest, the 2004 elections were an apparent indication that Ukraine was divided into two major ethnic/linguistic groups. The use of propaganda by the Russian media was so influential to the crisis witnessed in 2013-2014 Ukraine’s crisis. In an article done by Samoilenko (2014) regarding the Crimea and Ukraine crisis, most of the Russian respondents said that according to the reports they had from Russian media, they found it necessary for the intervention by their troops in Crimea to save the Russian ethnic group (Marples, 2015). The articles in the Russian language portrayed diverse realities of the way in Crimea as the ethnic war that was propagated by ethnic groups. This move widened the gap between the two linguistic groups thus creating more animosity that intensified the crisis. The move by the then president Yanukovich to turn down the trade deal with the European Union in favour of Moscow’s 15 billion deal made the Ukrainian feel that the administration was more biased on East than Europe and that the influence by the Russian government was still paramount even two centuries after their independence. This sparked off protests in the capital city that led to intensified hatred between the two major linguistic groups in Ukraine (Petro, 2014).

Even before the 2013-2014 Ukraine’s crisis, the push for separation was still being driven by local elites who had demanded that the Russian language is used as a state language in Donbas and Ukraine at large (Wilson, 2016). Wilson (2016) argues that the rivalry between Donbas (whose majority are Russian speakers) and the Ukrainians ethnic groups had existed for sometimes and Donbas were constantly fighting for their identity to be recognized in Ukraine. Majority of Russian speakers had expressed their regret on the collapse of USSR in 2013, and they still felt that they belonged to Russia even if Ukraine was independent. This historical animosity was a baseline for the pro-Russian movements that emerged in the 2013-2014 crisis (Wilson, 2016). Besides, the extent to which linguistic differences affected Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis can be learned from the responses of the residents who were interviewed by some researchers after the end of the crisis. It was noted that most of the Ukrainian speakers felt that after the crisis they felt “more of” Ukrainians than before. One of the respondents said that his national identity had improved and they could speak Ukrainian more that before after the crisis (Wilson, 2016). This is a clear indication that one of the major motivations to the crisis was lingual supremacy of the two dominance linguistic groups.

Language played a paramount role in Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis as evidenced by Russia’s explanation for its reason to interfere with Ukraine’s internal affairs. Russia claimed that their interference to the war was motivated by the massive violation of the rights of the Russian speakers (Tyshchenko, 2015). Previous studies have shown that although language had some influence in Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis, the two major linguistic groups interact closely with each other but their difference is always apparent during politics where they are aligned to different political affiliations mostly determined by their language (Tyshchenko, 2015). This can explain why there is divided political loyalty in Ukrainian population. It is based on not only ideological differences but also ethnic/linguistic differences. It is important to note that political leaders take advantage of ethnic differences in countries where voting patterns are on linguistic divides. Political leaders rally the support of their ethnic group to raise to power. However, in instances where the majority have always won against the minority group, it becomes hard when the minorities win and assuming power is never easy for them. This is what happened in Ukraine when the leader, who was a pro-Russian, won the elections, and the pro-Ukrainian political leaders ensured they toppled him rallying the support of their linguistic group (Strasheim, 2016).

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The bond created by language to the people who share the same ethnic background enables them to build trust among each other and in a similar way makes cooperation between two ethnic groups very complicated (Strasheim, 2016). Previous studies have shown that ethnically divided communities experience ethnic voting patterns since shared language encourages political leaders to exploit the avenue to rally support from their respective ethnic groups. The regional identities created by Ukrainian speakers living in western and central and their Russian speakers’ counterparts living in eastern and southern regions defines the political loyalties of the linguistically diverse country (Strasheim, 2016). Although economic factor was among the causes of the eastern crisis in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin states that the crisis was purely ethnic as it was Russian speakers against the Ukrainian Speakers (Marples, 2015). Vladimir Putin is quoted saying that after the former Ukrainian president was overthrown, there was an attempt to invalidate some ethnic minorities including the use of native language by the native Ukrainian Russians (Simon, 2014). In addition, the history of the eastern part of Ukraine dominated by Russian speakers had a significant influence on the crisis. However, the fact that the Ukrainian language is the only language that is constitutionally recognized in the country, Russian speakers always showed objection to that, and the rebellious part of Donetsk had declared both Russian and Ukrainian as the national language (Petro, 2014).

Scholars have associated the ease at which Crimea was annexed by Russia with the dominance of the Russian speakers who had been willing since the break of the Soviet Union, to be part of Russia. Therefore, the crisis is more likely to have been influenced by the linguistic differences that existed in the country. The officiating of the Russian language in Crimea before its annexation had influenced even the education curriculum thus making native Ukrainian children feel disadvantaged. The dominance by the Russian language in all the sectors led to increased repression of the Ukrainians and even ousted them from Crimea (Tyshchenko, 2015). This move did not auger well to Ukrainians who felt that they were being ousted from their native land. According to a sociological survey done in the eight regions of Ukraine, the majority of Ukrainian felt that Russia intervened into the Ukrainian crisis to protect their Russian speakers, which was echoed by the Russian speakers in those regions (Tyshchenko, 2015). Nevertheless, some researchers have despised that ethnic differences influenced Ukraine’s post-2014 crisis citing that the bicultural history of the country has always depicted the Russian and Ukrainian speakers as an integrated society, which coexists peacefully (Wilson, 2016).

In conclusion, to some extent, linguistic diversity in Ukraine played a significant role in the 2013-2014 crisis mainly between the Russian and Ukrainian speakers. The dominance of Russian language in work places as well as in education centres provoked the native Ukrainians who felt undermined since their constitution had promoted the Ukrainian language as the country’s official language.

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  1. BBC, 2014. Ukraine’s Sharp Division. BBC News. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26387353 [Accessed 22 March 2018].
  2. Filatova, I., 2014. Digital Media in Ukraine Conflict: Blessing or a Curse?. Deutsche Welle. http://www.dw.com/en/digital-media-in-ukraine-conflict-blessing-or-a-curse/a-17754636 [Accessed 22 March 2018].
  3. Kazdobina, J., 2017. The Russian Language in Ukraine. Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research. [Online] Available at: http://ucipr.org.ua/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=643&catid=16&Itemid=101&lang=enhttp://ucipr.org.ua/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=643&catid=16&Itemid=101&lang=en [Accessed 22 March 2018].
  4. Kulyk, V., 2016. National Identity in Ukraine: Impact of Euromaidan and the War. Europe-Asia Studies, 68(4), pp. 588-608.
  5. Marples, D., 2015. Ethnic and Social Composition of Ukraine’s Regions and Voting Patterns. International Relations Publishing, pp. 10-12.
  6. Petro, N., 2014. Ukraine’s Culture War. The National Interest. [Online] Available at: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/ukraines-culture-war-9838 [Accessed 22 March 2018].
  7. Simon, J., 2014. Transcript: Vladimir Putin’s April 17 Q&A. The-Washington-Post, [Online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-vladimir-putins-april-17-qanda/2014/04/17/ff77b4a2-c635-11e3-8b9a-8e0977a24aeb_story.html?utm_term=.dd293ea7abc8  [Accessed 22 March 2018].
  8. Strasheim, J., 2016. Domestic Explanations for War and Peace in Ukraine. GIGA Research Programme: Peace and Security, Volume 287, pp. 5-28.
  9. Tyshchenko, Y., 2015. The Ukrainian Crisis: Between the identity policy and confrontation to the “Russian World.” UCIPR, pp. 2-8.
  10. Wilson, A., 2016. The Donbas in 2014: Explaining Civil Conflict perhaps, but not civil war. Europe-Asia Studies, 68(4), pp. 631-652.
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