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Language Law Lays Bare Divisions In Ukraine


Russia's neighbor, Ukraine, is experiencing a linguistic rift. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, has signed a law making Russian one of the country's official regional languages. Russian is spoken primarily in the country's east and south; Ukrainian is spoken in the west and center. And Ukrainian speakers fear that Russian could crowd out Ukrainian, as it did in Soviet times. David Stern reports from Kiev.

DAVID STERN, BYLINE: Ukraine is country that is sometimes united by its two main languages.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Russian spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Ukrainian spoken)

STERN: Here on "Shuster Live," a popular television talk show, a participant asks a question in Russian and gets his answer in Ukrainian.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Russian spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Ukrainian spoken)

STERN: It's a common occurrence in this country where 17 million people speak Russian as a first language and 20 million speak Ukrainian.


STERN: But the language divide also leads to conflict. Clashes erupted in parliament in May when the ruling party introduced a law allowing Russian to be used in Russian-speaking regions.


STERN: Opposition politicians resist granting Russian any official status whatsoever, saying Ukraine should only have one official language.


STERN: This is Vopli Vidopliassova, one of the country's most popular groups. They sing in Ukrainian.

VOPLI VIDOPLIASSOVA: (Singing in Ukrainian)

STERN: Oleh Skrypka is the group's leader. He says that when Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire and Soviet Union, the Russian language was artificially introduced and Ukrainian was severely restricted.

OLEH SKRYPKA: Russian language is not natural for Ukraine, because it was after the colonization of Russia.

STERN: Skrypka says that the Ukrainian language is central to the country's identity. Allowing Russian to spread threatens Ukraine's freedom from Moscow.

SKRYPKA: The problem with the language, Ukrainian language, in the future, it will be the problem with the state of Ukraine, with the independence. It's very simple.

STERN: The law's supporters say, however, they are not destroying Ukraine's autonomy, but simply giving language minorities their due rights. Ruslan Bortnik is a human rights activist and one of the law's authors.

RUSLAN BORTNIK: I'm also a Ukrainian speaker, Ukrainian. And I never do something bad for Ukrainian language, for Ukrainian culture. It's my language, my culture. But this law made only equal rights for all citizens of Ukraine.

ANDREY KURKOV: (Ukrainian spoken)

STERN: That's Andrey Kurkov, one of Ukraine's best-known Russian-language writers, ordering tea. He's speaking Ukrainian.

KURKOV: (Ukrainian spoken)

STERN: Kurkov thinks the country is not ready to tackle the language issue. Nonetheless, he says as a Russian-speaker he faces difficulties and cannot find Russian-language schools for his children.

KURKOV: So, my kids don't learn Russian. It's only up to me to teach them Russian. They speak Russian, this is their mother tongue - second mother tongue - but they don't know how to write properly, etc.

STERN: Kurkov says that people from the country's Ukrainian-speaking West often do not consider Russian-speakers to be true Ukrainians.

KURKOV: The problem is that western Ukrainians have been always looking down at eastern Ukrainians, at Russian-speaking Ukrainians, calling them not proper Ukrainians, or traitors.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Ukrainian)

STERN: Ukrainian language activists sang folk songs at a recent demonstration in Kiev. More rallies are planned later this month. Given the passions surrounding the issue, many are asking why the law was introduced at all. Oleh Rybachuk is an independent political analyst. He says the reason is simple: Ukraine is holding parliamentary elections in October.

OLEH RYBACHUK: It's called cementing your constituency.

STERN: Mobilizing your base is also a familiar strategy in the United States. But for Ukraine, a country politically and linguistically divided, it is producing disastrous results. For NPR News, this is David Stern in Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Stern