Cablegate: Russian Language and the Presidential Campaign

DE RUEHKV #2069/01 3341344
R 301344Z NOV 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: The status of the Russian language in
linguistically divided Ukraine has thus far featured less in
the current Presidential election campaign than it did in
2004. The Regions party (PoR), which calls for Russian to
become a second state language, has chosen instead to
concentrate more on economic themes that resonate with the
broader range of voters at a time of economic crisis.
Nonetheless, the status of the Russian language remains a
hot-button issue in the Russophone East and South. While
Regions leader Yanukovych, if elected, would likely be unable
to change the Constitution to make Russian a second state
language, he would be able to roll back various decrees by
the current government to encourage greater use of Ukrainian.
End Summary.

Russian Language as a Campaign Issue

2. (U) The 18 registered presidential candidates present a
broad spectrum of views on the status of the Russian language
in Ukraine. Only three candidates, Viktor Yanukovych (PoR),
Petro Symonenko (Communist Party of Ukraine), and Inna
Bogoslovska, advocate in their campaign platforms for making
Russian the second state language. Among the other
candidates, Rada Speaker Lytvyn defends Russian as a language
for interethnic communication, Prime Minister Tymoshenko
supports Ukrainian as the sole state language, and President
Yushchenko makes no mention of language in his platform,
despite his government's strong encouragement of the use of

3. (SBU) In a recent conversation with us, PoR MP
Miroshnychenko discussed his party's current approach to the
language issue, explaining that the PoR sees the issue
narrowly as one of a citizen's right to communicate with the
government. He noted that outside of official written
communication, Russian-speaking Ukrainians experience little
difficulty or discrimination. While reiterating his party's
position that Russian should be the second state language,
Miroshnychenko said that the PoR would not emphasize the
divisive language issue in the current presidential campaign
in order to avoid alienating potential voters, especially in
Western Ukraine.

4. (SBU) Nevertheless, Miroshnychenko made a point to confirm
that the PoR has already gotten enough signatures to put the
official-status issue to a referendum. Moreover, Leonid
Klimov, an Odesa oligarch and chief of the Odesa Oblast PoR
branch, told us that language is the central issue of the
presidential campaign in his region. He alleged that having
to deal with Ukrainian-only documents is a hardship for
Russian-speakers, and said that the government discriminates
in its hiring practices against applicants who do not speak
Ukrainian well. Klimov especially criticized recent
regulations to strengthen the position of the Ukrainian
language in education, claiming that teachers would face
disciplinary measures for speaking Russian at any time within
the confines of a school building, even during off-hours.

5. (SBU) Yanukovych himself alluded to the possible approach
of a PoR government during a campaign stop in Donetsk on
November 18, explaining that it would be "simple" to solve
the Russian language problem: all that is needed is the
President and 226 votes in the Rada. Changing the
constitution to make Russian a second state language would,
however, require 300 votes in the Rada, which none of our
contacts believe the PoR would be able to muster. Rather,
they suggest a PoR government could probably satisfy its core
constituency by rolling back some of the Yushchenko-era
decrees and regulations to promote Ukrainian, and could tweak
existing legislation to enhance use of Russian.

Public Opinion

6. (SBU) The status of the Russian language remains a
resonant issue for many Ukrainians in the East and South.
One is Kostyantyn Shurov, head of the "Russian Community in
Ukraine," the largest organization supporting ethnic Russians
and Russian speakers in the country. Shurov told us his
organization has over 8,000 full members, and claimed he
would be able to rally over 200,000 supporters into the
streets (without paying them) if the need arose. Shurov
maintained there is widespread discrimination against Russian
speakers. He complained in particular about an alleged
scarcity of access to Russian-language schooling at all
levels. When asked whom Russian speakers would most likely
support in the upcoming polls, Shurov dismissed Tymoshenko,
Yushchenko, and Yanukovych, indicating disillusionment with

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all the major parties. Even the PoR, which is typically
viewed as more supportive of the Russian language, garnered
his disapproval.

7. (SBU) However, according to a November poll conducted by
the Ukrainian Democratic Circle, the majority of Ukrainians
do not consider the language issue a priority. 54.7% of
respondents called the issue "not pertinent", with only 14.7%
finding it "urgent". Oleksandr Lytvynenko, an expert on
domestic politics at the Razumkov Center for Economic and
Political Studies, reinforced this impression, telling us his
think tank was not conducting a survey on the status of the
Russian language this year because they do not see it as an
issue of great concern to most Ukrainians. He noted that in
contrast to the 2004 campaign season, candidates this year
are generally downplaying the divisive issue.


8. (SBU) Though Shurov never said so outright, he alluded
that much of his organization's support comes from Russia.
The Razumkov Center's Lytvynenko said he believes that Russia
is using the language issue as a tool to attempt to influence
Ukraine's electoral agenda, and that Russia is bolstering its
"hard" tools, like the Black Sea Fleet and gas, with "soft"
tools like language.


9. (SBU) Comment: The PoR is, thus far at least, downplaying
the language issue at the national level as it uses criticism
of economic policy and the current leadership to attract
disillusioned voters in Ukrainophone, historically "orange"
western and central Ukraine. At the same time, the PoR is
stressing the issue locally in the East and South to rally
their core electorate. A President Yanukovych might not be
able to fulfill his campaign promise to make Russian a second
state language, but he could probably satisfy most of his
supporters with more modest measures rolling back the present
government's efforts to promote Ukrainian.

© Scoop Media

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