Ukraine recently passed a law limiting teaching in minority languages in schools [Reuters/Gleb Garanich]
“Small sparks can start fires”, wrote the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland.
The law envisages a near-full Ukrainisation of tuition in what is a de-facto multilingual country. It has caused an outrage in Ukraine’s EU neighbours, particularly Hungary, which pledged to veto every pro-Ukranian initiative it can.
But Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek and many other minorities are just “collateral damage”. The elephant in the room is, of course, the Russian language, which is the main target of the legislation. Spoken as either the first or second language by the vast majority of Ukrainians, it also happens to be the language of Ukraine’s aggressor that seized Crimea in 2014 and instigated a conflict in the Donbas region.
Ukrainian nationalists have long dreamed of turning Ukraine into a monolingual country like Poland, and now Russia has provided them with a perfect pretext by invading their country. The virtual absence of any clear and coherent reaction from Russian-speaking Ukrainians clearly shows that the timing couldn’t be better.
The break-up with Russia prompts people to embrace their long-lost or freshly acquired Ukrainianness. Many families who became Russian-speaking only a generation or two ago would be happy to see their children speak the tongue of their grandmothers as their first language. For others, speaking Ukrainian is a political choice – numerous Russian-speakers, including those born in Russia, have been so dismayed by the Russian aggression that they are ready to completely change their ethnic and linguistic identity.
Ultimately, most people are simply indifferent. Virtually every Ukrainian is bilingual and switching from one language to another poses few problems. Millions of Ukrainians speak a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian known as “surzhyk”. Language issues are extremely low on Ukrainian people’s priority list compared with economic woes and the war in the east, as multiple polls repeatedly show.
Those who do care about the future of Russian language in Ukraine are in disarray and they should blame themselves for their predicament. It was their inability to organise politically and defend their rights in a civilised European manner, their nostalgia for authoritarianism and their acceptance of Putin’s dictatorship, which left them in a political vacuum, when Russia invaded Ukraine. More importantly, millions of Russia-leaning Russian speakers have lost their link with Ukraine’s Russian-speaking intelligentsia and middle class, which were overwhelmingly pro-Maidan and constituted a significant part of the revolutionary movement in Kiev.
Of course, some Russian-speakers still habitually expect Russia to raise its voice and use the pretext to increase its pressure politically and militarily. After all, it was the brief cancellation of the Yanukovych-era law on minority languages by the Ukrainian parliament in March 2014, which immensely helped the Kremlin propaganda to consolidate pro-Russian forces in Crimea and justify the invasion.
Putin’s regime and Ukrainian nationalists owe a lot to each other for their mutual success.
But this time the Kremlin’s reaction was slow and rather muted. One reason might that the new Ukrainian legislation caught the Kremlin amid controversy over minority languages within Russia itself. In August, Vladimir Putin voiced his opposition to compulsory teaching in the languages of Russian autonomies. The expected reduction of language classes has sparked protests in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. It is also easy for Ukraine to rebuff Moscow’s accusations by pointing at the destruction of Ukrainian-language education in Crimea, where ethnic Ukrainians are the largest minority.
But of course, the main reason for Russia not to make too much noise is that it is definitely more exciting for the Kremlin to watch Ukraine harm itself than to make any efforts in that direction. The new legislation has already pitted Ukraine against its western neighbours, and the Hungarian threats to Ukraine are music to the Kremlin’s ears.
In the long term, the language issue will certainly be used by the Russia-friendly opposition to Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government, which already controls some of the large cities and a multitude of smaller municipalities in the country’s east and south, especially in areas adjacent to the front line in Donbas.
The language issue is, of course, only the cherry on the cake – the main source of dissatisfaction stems from extremely low standards of living in what is now officially the poorest country in Europe, exacerbated by radical reforms of the energy sector that led to skyrocketing prices for electricity and heating. With the pendulum of political sympathies inevitably swinging away from the revolutionary camp, the language law is a neatly laid time bomb, which the Kremlin will not be detonating until the time is right.
Finally, of course, it can only make the Kremlin happy that Ukraine is moving away from the idea of a democratic multicultural society towards the obsolete idea of a monocultural ethnic nation-state, or – in other words – away from Europe and political modernity. It is the course Putin has long chosen for his own country, so Ukraine is certainly welcome on board.
Besides, it is well known that outwardly Russophobic forces in Eastern Europe are much easier to tame and turn to its side than their annoying liberals with their principles, values and sceptical mindset. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a great example of former right-wing Russophobe’s complete and logical transformation into a friend of the Kremlin. Ukrainian nationalists are much more likely to drift back into the Kremlin’s fold than staunch liberals.
Putin’s regime and Ukrainian nationalists owe a lot to each other for their mutual success. In Ukraine, many ironically call Putin the father of the modern nation, because his invasion consolidated Ukrainians in the way nation-state builders could only dream of.
But without Ukrainian nationalism and its flirtation with highly toxic totalitarian symbols and ideas of the early 20th century, Putin wouldn’t have been able to mobilise his constituency in support of the Crimean invasion the way he did in 2014, when his approval rating soared from 65 to 88 percent.
Their sparring may look like a fierce battle, or as they like to put it – “a clash of civilisations”, but its whole point is to keep liberals and pacifists on both sides off of the pitch.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.