KIEV – The importance of language in the escalating crisis in Ukraine came to the fore as Russian President Vladimir Putin justified deploying troops in Crimea by saying Moscow needed to protect Russian-speakers there.
Traditionally, the west of the country as well as the capital Kiev has been Ukrainian-speaking, while the east and south — closer to Russia and including the explosive Crimea region — speak Russian.
But most Ukrainians are bilingual and switch naturally between languages depending on the situation.
Now, after the incursion of Russian troops in the Crimea Peninsula, and with a pro-European government in Kiev, the sound of words has never been more political.
“In politics, the use of language is a signal: ‘with us or against us,’ ” Ukrainian sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina told reporters.
After Russia’s parliament greenlighted Putin’s proposal to send troops into Ukraine, many Kiev residents have started speaking only Ukrainian as a sign of protest against the Kremlin’s actions.
Members of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions usually speak Russian, while Orange Revolution icon and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a Russophone, refuses to speak it — even in interviews with Russian journalists.
The leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, Oleh Tyahnybok, went so far as to ask for an interpreter in an interview with a Russian channel at the height of the political upheaval in Kiev last month.
At the same time, lines are easily crossed when it suits the speaker.
Yanukovych came from the eastern Russian-speaking region of Donetsk but made efforts to master Ukrainian — the country’s only national language — after his election in 2010.
Dmitry Jarosh, leader of the ultranationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) movement, told reporters that he refused to speak Russian, but still announced his candidacy for the May 25 presidential elections in three languages: English, Russian and Ukrainian.
Russian and Ukrainian are both eastern Slavic languages. But despite similarities in grammar and vocabulary and almost identical alphabets, they differ sharply in many ways and are not mutually intelligible.
Rather than a relative of Russia, many Ukrainian-speakers consider their language to be closer to Polish.
While Russian was the official language of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was also taught in schools there, so every Ukrainian can read and write in that language even if they do not speak it at home.
Studies show that just 1 percent of the population does not understand Ukrainian, while 30 percent do not speak it fluently, and the proportions are similar for Russian, said Bekeshkina, the sociologist.
Remarkably however, a majority of people in the east and south — 67 percent in Dnipropetrovsk and 53.8 percent in Kharkiv — gave Ukrainian as their mother tongue in a 2001 census.
In everyday life, many Ukrainians switch back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian — at the supermarket, the bank or when speaking with friends and family. Talk show guests on Ukrainian television often debate issues in both languages simultaneously.
One issue that sparked the recent language debate was a decision last month by the new government to drop a 2010 law that made Russian a second official language in parts of Ukraine and was passed with Yanukovych’s support.
The law was eventually kept, but Moscow condemned the attempt to “restrict the humanitarian rights of Russians.”
Putin also used this reasoning to justify the use of military force by saying Russia had the right to “protect its interests and Russian-speaking populations” in Ukraine.
“The law wasn’t working,” said Bekeshkina, “but lifting it would have been stupid: the regions concerned would have interpreted this as ‘the nationalists imposing their rules.’ “
For former world boxing champion turned politician Vitali Klitschko, another presidential candidate, the language question was “artificial” and only used by politicians who have “run out of arguments.”
“I’m a Russian-speaker . . . my mother is Russian, my father is Ukrainian, and I never got the impression that my rights were being trampled on as far as language is concerned.”
Moscow may have jumped to the defense of Russian speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine, but for Myroslav Popovich, a Ukrainian philosopher, Russian was not the language most under threat.
Ukrainian is less widespread, few works of classical literature are translated into the language and there are few scientific textbooks in Ukrainian.
If the authorities make no effort to promote it, he warned that this was the language that was going to be suffering “discrimination.”