Conflict in Ukraine not driven by differences in language, says report

International Alert has launched a new report with the Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research (UCIPR) which suggests that language or identity aren’t key drivers of the conflict in east Ukraine.

The report, called Russophone identity in Ukraine, looks at the implications of Russian language use in Ukraine for ethnic Russians, three years on from when conflict started. Despite media claims that differences in language play a key part in this conflict, the findings suggest that on the whole citizens do not feel this is a source of tension.

However the report reveals that the question of the future of the Russian language and its speakers in Ukraine remains extremely sensitive, open to political manipulation and potential future divisions.

“Too often, people claim that a clash of linguistic and ethnic identities sparked the conflict. Our research shows the opposite, that on the whole Russian and Ukrainian speakers have been living and continue to live peacefully side by side”, said Alyona Lukyanchuk from our Ukraine team.

“However, the language issue has been highly politicised and sadly, we are seeing incidents of it being used to stir up tensions. We must address this as part of the reconciliation process in the country.” 

Language has been on Ukraine’s agenda since independence in 1991, when Ukrainian replaced Russian as the official language. There has since been a gradual increase in the number of people, including ethnic Russians, who speak Ukrainian, and several government policies aiming to broaden its use.

Russian nevertheless continues to be widely spoken, especially in the south and east.

Map of languages in Ukraine

Source: Recreated with permission from Evan Centanni, Political Geography Now ( Figures based on the Ukraine census 2001.

The study found that most Russian speakers in Ukraine do not face discrimination and have opportunities to learn, communicate and share information in their native language.

“I teach Russian language and literature … and I teach in Russian. In 35 years of my work, I have never been discriminated against on the grounds of language,” said a teacher from Kherson in southern Ukraine, just north of Crimea.

By contrast, respondents noted there was still a shortage in Ukrainian-language cultural materials in parts of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv – a legacy of the language policy of the Soviet Union, which prioritised Russian.

The report also examines the many different attitudes that Russian-speaking Ukrainians hold of the conflict, including those who disassociate themselves from the policies of the Russian government.

It sets out recommendations for reducing potential tensions relating to language, which include protecting the rights of both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, developing multilingual educational methods and combatting hate speech, irrespective of the language used.

Download the full report in EnglishRussian and Ukrainian.

Photo: Opposition party activists protest a law regarding the status of the Ukrainian language, Dnipropetrovsk, 2012 © zlyden (Creative Commons)