I have written about the issue of language in Ukraine many times, most recently regarding the less than smooth passage, and in fact brawling, as the latest attempt to address the issue eventually got past the first hurdle in the RADA at the beginning of last month.
Yesterday evening, amongst some possibly dubious RADA procedural and protocol shenanigans, the second reading of the bill passed (with 248 votes in favour) and so now it remains whether is will ever be signed into law and not be subject to Presidential veto due to the fact it is not the best written piece of proposed legislation to leave the RADA.
One wonders if now the Ukrainian government have passed a law that allows Ukrainian citizens not to learn the Ukrainian language when it comes to schooling etc. Maybe so given the wording of the law, then again maybe not.
Anyway, whether you follow politics or not in Odessa, and whether you are good at putting faces to names or not, the face of Aleksey Gonsharenko is one almost everybody in Odessa will know. He is a very young looking Party of Regions local politician who has always been very active, and occasionally so populist you would wince, for a good number of years.
He is currently riding high in the current Odessa City Council, quite possibly a little higher than his current political ability would legitimise, however with what seems a long political career ahead, a learning curve no matter how steep is no bad thing.
By chance, after a delightful hour with my dentist yesterday, quite by accident I bumped into some of Aleksey Gonsharenko’s “people” supporting the current proposed language law and raising a petition in support. Unsurprisingly, given Odessa is a very Russian speaking city, there were huge numbers of names, addresses, telephone numbers and signatures in support – of which my good lady is now also a signatory.
Looking at the mountainous pile of completed petition pages and the queues waiting to support the petition, I would estimate many, many thousands of signatures requesting Odessa City adopt Russian as a regional language to be used in the courts, schools and local administrative bureaucracy should this law pass in the RADA and receive presidential signature.
However, as I have previously written, Russian is used in courts, hospitals, schools etc in Odessa. It is de facto the language of such institutions, politicians, civil servants and population even if not de jure, thus leaving all official bureaucratically produced documents to be written only in Ukrainian.
There is some merit and indeed legitimate demand from Odessite society to have official documents produced in Russian in Odessa. In short there is large public support, and thus democratic mandate, for the de facto to become the de jure, allowing the Odessa City Council to make written proclamations and notices in both Ukrainian and Russian when addressing the people of Odessa, which Aleksey Gonsharenko is championing very loudly, even if pushing against an open door.
Now my position is quite clear. Ukrainian should be the only official language of the State, but this law does not propose making Russian a second language of State but a regional language that can be used in legally written communication between local authorities and its people as well as Ukrainian.
It doesn’t only apply to Russian either, but any other of the 17 minority languages Ukraine recognised when it signed up to the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages a decade ago, if more than 10% of any regional administrations population speak a particular minority language.
I find myself in a conflict over the issue. As a firm believer in democracy, and in particular a firm supporter of local democracy, as is quite clear to anybody who visits Odessa, Russian is the de facto first language of the city and almost all the 1.8 million occupants. They must surely have the right to have their local politicians and local administrations communicate with them in all formats, in a language they quite obviously prefer.
However, if the de facto becomes the de jure, even if only regionally, the foundations of the Ukrainian language may find it far harder to remain relevant in Odessa. I think that would be a terrible shame.
Cynically, I wonder whether this law to make de facto into regional de jure is not in some way done for the benefit of the politicians and administrations who struggle with the Ukrainian language themselves. I am assured by Mr Gonsharenko’s people that is not the case, and in his case maybe it’s not, but for the politicians my age I can’t help but see a cynically inspired law to allow them to use a language they are far more fluent in, rather than have to stumble with and Ukrainian at public events and in official written correspondence.
It is after all a double edged sword. If a regional administration has 10% or more of its citizenry speaking one of the official 18 minority languages recognised by Ukraine, that minority will expect and possibly have the legal right, to have their politicians converse fluently with them in their minority language which in some cases would then force the politicians, civil servants and regional State entities to learn Bulgarian, or Tartar or Hebrew etc.
Maybe I should just keep my thoughts to myself. I’m not Ukrainian and my native language isn’t one of the 18 minority languages recognised by Ukraine. Of the languages I can speak, 2 of them, German and Russian, fall within the 18. English seems to be something I only write in these days, unless I happen upon a hapless tourist.
The problem remains though, that my belief in democracy necessarily supports the majority of the Odessa populous in whatever cause they support – even if I don’t agree with the cause. In this instance I don’t necessarily agree with the cause.
Needless to say, I have yet to sign Aleksey Gonsharenko’s petition but fully understand those that have.