Ukraine's Culture War

A land pulled east and west.

The next logical step would be to move bilingualism from the regional level, where it only serves to foster localism, to the national level, where it can actually promote national unity. Mandating equality for both languages at the national level would affirm the rights of Eastern and Southern Ukrainians to their cultural identity, while retaining strong regional language laws would allow Western Ukrainians to promote their own culture and language.

A good model for Ukraine to ponder is Canada, where regional language laws are applied asymmetrically—most provinces are officially English speaking but provide some services in French, the province of Quebec is officially French speaking, but provides some services in English, and just two provinces are officially bilingual. Nevertheless, official bilingualism at the national level affords people a guarantee of equality of access and recognition to key federal services wherever they live, and is widely credited for having preserved national unity.

None of these proposals will instantly resolve the current political crisis. It is important to realize, however, that there are no institutional or political quick fixes to a problem that is, at its heart, cultural. Until the issue of national identity is resolved in a manner acceptable to both major Ukrainian cultural identities, similar political crises are bound to recur.

Due to historical circumstances, modern Ukraine is neither fully East nor fully West. Potentially, however, it contains the best of both. At this critical juncture it can either let the cultural divide between Europe and Russia go right through its heart, or, it can help bring an end to this division by healing its own cultural wounds.

Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, is currently a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine. These remarks were prepared for a forum in Kiev sponsored by the American Institute in Ukraine. The views expressed do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Amakuha. CC BY-SA 2.0.