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East-west language divide

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East-west language divide


The Ukrainian parliament this summer adopted a law to expand Russian language rights, but parts of the Luhansk region in the east of Ukraine refused to apply it.

The law grants Russian official status where at least ten percent of the population uses Russian as their first language.

Here in Novopskov, not far from the border with Russia, people say that politicians are driving a wedge between the east and the west.

Valentyna Romenska, a local former teacher, told us that having Russia so close, with both sides enjoying good relations, has coloured their perception of history – given people a view other than that in western Ukraine.

“We see patriotism differently. Here in the east of Ukraine we consider Soviet Army liberators. In western Ukraine they say that it was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who conquered the fascists. But as time passes and new generations come there’s a hope that historical controversies will pass away along with people like us.”

This district has a population which is mostly ethnically Ukrainian. So, people here have preserved the Ukrainian language and traditions for centuries.

The city of Luhansk, however, unlike other parts, has respected the language law, and has already granted the Russian language official status. This aims to allow Russian to be used in courts, universities or administrative institutions, on the same level as Ukrainian.

A local taxi-driver we met confided he has mixed feelings.

Oleksiy said:“I would prefer to have the option to fill in forms in Russian. It would be easier for me. There’d be fewer mistakes. But it’s a shame when someone who was born in Ukraine and lives here doesn’t’t speak Ukrainian, or know our country’s history.”

One of the campaign strategies in the east plays on an idea of a union between Russia and Ukraine.

The new law allows media to use any language they like on air. This makes many people nervous that Russian might weaken Ukrainian in the market. Well, we met a few Russian-speaking DJs in Kiev who believe their Thursday show in Ukrainian might help.

Valeria Chachibaya at “Prosto Radio” said: “When you start speaking Ukrainian to someone, lots switch to Ukrainian as well. But two or three sentences later they switch back to Russian. A person feels stress switching languages. But if you make it a system, something like a learning method – if a person turns on his or her favourite radio station on Thursday and hears “Good morning!” in Ukrainian, it’s easy to “tune in” and feel yourself a member of a Ukrainian-speaking community.”

By some estimates, almost a quarter of Ukrainians feel Russian should become a second state language, along with Ukrainian. But not necessarily in western Ukraine. The regional council of Lviv has declared the language law “invalid” in its territory.

Head of the council Oleh Pankevych said: ”Nobody says that the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians could be violated somehow today. On the contrary, when you turn on the radio or TV, or look at the books being sold, it’s the Russian language which dominates.”

Lviv wants Ukraine’s Constitutional Court to clarify articles of the language law which it believes are abusive. The Party of Regions leading the government has offered reassurance, saying amendments are being prepared.

Every story can be told in many ways: see the perspectives from Euronews journalists in our other language teams.

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