Lost for words: a tough first week for Ukraine's president-elect
Zelensky at the results of the first exit-polls. Source: Reuters, Valentyn Ogirenko
On Sunday 21 April, Volodymyr Zelensky sailed to victory in the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, receiving nearly three-quarters of the votes. At the age of 41 Zelensky is Ukraine’s youngest ever president. Yet his lack of political experience has left many commentators concerned about the sitcom actor’s commitment to, or perhaps ability to maintain strong and decisive diplomatic autonomy for Ukraine.
Three days after his landslide win, Zelensky was presented his first challenge by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the form of new so-called ‘passportisation’ legislation which makes it much easier for Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass region to acquire Russian citizenship. The next day on April 25th Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a law that requires the Ukrainian language to be used in most aspects of public life. We are going to analyse how Volodymyr Zelensky has dealt with these two quite different challenges: is he able to maintain a strict anti-Kremlin line and what is to be learnt from the first week of this new chapter in Ukrainian politics.
Since 2014, the relations between Moscow and Kyiv have been in a state of disarray. The politics of sanctions and mutual threats moved both countries into uncharted waters, in which both sides could negotiate only from a position of strength. And after the recent election, Kyiv was given a new challenge by the Kremlin that increased tensions between the neighbouring countries even further.
On April 24th, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that enabled residents of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine to request Russian citizenship via an expedited procedure. These war-stricken territories have declared independence from Kyiv, but have not received official recognition from Moscow. Russia stresses it had no intention of provoking Ukrainian authorities. “We, including myself, are very far from provoking anybody,” Vladimir Putin said. “The passports-related issue is purely humanitarian.”
Predictably, it caused a negative reaction inside Ukraine and amongst most global actors. If the main aim of a new President is to find a most peaceful solution to the conflict, stopping the bloodshed, then Moscow's move seems like a test for the president-elect -- will he cope to maintain the autonomy of the country and oppose Russian pressure or not? The Russian decree was condemned by EU, which stated that this decision “shows Russia's intention to further destabilise Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict.” Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, said, “Donbas is and the people there - regardless of preferred language - are Ukrainian. Russia’s recent decision to issue passports is highly provocative & is straight from its “occupation playbook” and undermines efforts to implement Minsk & restore Donbas to Ukrainian control.”
Since Zelenskiy has no previous political experience there were doubts as to whether he would make concessions to Moscow to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine. But it seems this decree stopped any prospects of that. Very soon the president’s team released a post on Facebook, calling Russia “an aggressor state that is waging war against Ukraine.” He also advised Russia not to waste time trying to give Russian passports to Ukrainians. “…I would not advise the Russian authorities to waste time by trying to tempt Ukrainian citizens with passports of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said.
It is the kind of rhetoric we've got used to seeing from Ukraine during the last five years. The fact that today this wording comes from Mr Zelensky suggests that relations are not likely to improve. It seems Zelenskiy will keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course. Today he sounds no less emphatic than the former President Petro Poroshenko.
Yet, if facing off with a militarily superior neighbour wasn’t tough enough during his first week in office, then Volodymyr Zelensky will have been pleased with a second pressing challenge this time from within his own country. On 25 April, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, passed a controversial language bill that has raised eyebrows inside and outside Ukraine. The bill -- passed by a 278-38 majority in the Verkhovna Rada -- raises the status of the Ukrainian language so that it dominates in all remits of public life: from bus drivers to teachers, doctors and politicians. This news has been met with mixed reactions: President-elect Zelensky, himself a Russian speaker, declared that “the law was passed without enough prior discussion”, adding that Ukraine needs legislation “that consolidates society, not that does the opposite.” In addition, many Ukrainian political commentators were quick to rally behind the Rada’s decision, sharply fending off criticism from Western commentators. So why has this story become a hot topic of discussion and what does Ukraine have to lose or gain from this decision?
Ten years ago language was not a poignant issue for most Ukrainians, according to a poll published in the Kyiv Post. However, a decade ago Euromaidan had not yet happened and Ukraine still had full control over Crimea and the Donbas region -- Russia was still a friendly state. Despite this, there still existed a significant number of Ukrainians, 41% of those polled, who wanted to see Ukrainian as the only official state language, with Russian being safeguarded. An additional 20.4% favoured granting Russian official language status only in regions were a majority spoke it (i.e. in the Donbass and Crimea). Meanwhile, 35.8% wanted equal status for both Russian and Ukrainian. From this we can draw the following conclusion: although there has existed fundamental support to bolster the position of the Ukrainian language in legislation for at least a decade, there lacked urgency, or perhaps the political necessity, to make changes to happen. Euromaidan changed this.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the public support for Thursday’s decision is overwhelming. Thousands cheered before the Verkhovna Rada in a tasteful display of national pride, which could serve as an example for Ukraine’s western and eastern neighbours alike. Yet, this new law may leave those Ukrainians -- 14.9% of the population -- for whom Ukrainian is not their native tongue feeling bitter, or even marginalised. Not least because President-elect Zelensky is himself a native Russian-speaker. However, some may lack sympathy for the actor-cum-president who not only struggles when speaking Ukrainian, but has also mocked those who speak it. Furthermore, the Ukrainian state is engaged in a frozen conflict initiated by an adversary with a history of colonising monolingualism. Thus, Ukraine is in an awkward predicament; does it empower the Ukrainian language to help mobilise national support against Russia, but simultaneously risk alienating at least 15% of Ukrainian citizens whose mother-tongue is not Ukrainian (e.g. Hungarian)?
Monopolising language is a centuries-old state-building tactic. Whether through the delatification of church sermons in pre-modern England, the policy of russification as employed by the Russian Empire, or resistance in France against encroaching anglicisms in the 21 century, states of all shapes and sizes have, rightly or wrongly, tried to forge national cohesion through monolingualism. What’s more, there are few examples of contemporary European states where two languages operate simultaneously in public life, Belgium and Switzerland being the notable exceptions.
Yet the domination of Russian in the Ukrainian media sphere as well as the Kremlin’s chauvinist attitude of protecting Russian speakers abroad mean that state promotion of the Ukrainian language could, in the longer run, distance Ukraine from Moscow. In the short term this risks Russia feeling antagonised by the Verkhovna Rada’s decision and may react with force. However, any extension or entrenchment of Russian military forces in the Donbas will come at a great cost and less strategic advantages. More likely is a war of words and nationalist hysteria on Russian state-owned television. Despite the strategic bonuses of the ukrainification of the public sphere, is it still not a shame that Ukraine may be sacrificing a rare form of multilingualism (19 linguistic minorities in all)  seldom to be seen in 21 century Europe?
Volodymyr Zelensky seems thus far to have successfully cleared the hurdles laid out by the Kremlin and Verkhovna Rada alike. To some surprise, he appears to have been emboldened, not intimidated, by Moscow’s antagonising. What’s more, Zelensky is winning the war of words thus far; even if his well-drafted Facebook post was probably written by a native Ukrainian speaker. One thing is for sure, Zelensky will be glad that when bilateral talks with Moscow do happen, they will be in Russian.