Russian invasion unites Ukrainians across linguistic lines

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On June 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would "defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and that part of the Ukrainian population and people who feel inseparable links — ethnic, as well as cultural — with Russia and feel part of the broader Russian world." This echoes the ethnocentric framework Russia used to justify its invasion of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. In contrast, Ukrainians, including ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, are increasingly rejecting this ethno-linguistic framework in favor of a civic identity of what it means to be Ukrainian, in which political ideals transcend divisions of language or "blood" ethnicity.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, protests broke out in Odesa, a largely Russophone city on the Black Sea coast. A sign at one of these protests read "Supporters of Putin — with him in power you won't be speaking Russian, you will keep silent in Russian!" Although Odesa would seem to be Putin's target audience due to the city's high population of ethnic Russians and even higher population of Russian speakers, the city's population came out in favor of remaining part of the Ukrainian state. Pro-Russian protesters reportedly were bussed in from nearby Transnistria because too few locals could be found who would protest in favor of joining Russia. Rather than seeking solidarity with an authoritarian country to whom many in the city have ethnic links, Odessites chose to identify as Ukrainians because of shared aspirations toward a democratic and pluralistic society, despite ethnic and linguistic divisions with other parts of Ukraine.

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In Kharkiv, a city 20 kilometers from the Russian border, the local Euromaidan movement held a rally to mark the inauguration of President Petro Poroshenko. It began with the Ukrainian national anthem, and subsequent speakers addressed the crowd about how to hold the new government accountable and how to prevent the return of the separatists, who were driven out of Kharkiv in May. Almost all the speeches were in Russian. Illia, a computer programmer from Kharkiv and a Russian speaker, said that under normal circumstances he would support the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, a sentiment popular in the city. For example, he mentioned allowing movies to be dubbed into Russian, as current national law only allows for dubbing into Ukrainian. Given the current situation, however, he and others in Kharkiv would not support such a movement, because Putin could use it to justify further intervention. Like the protesters in Odesa, many in Kharkiv value the political freedoms that come from living in an independent Ukraine over a Russian linguistic identity.

Not only have Russian speakers found refuge within a civic Ukrainian identity which does not depend on language or ethnicity, but Ukrainian speakers have also moved to shelve divisive issues of identity. One of the first acts of the Ukrainian parliament after the fall of former President Viktor Yanukovych was to repeal a law that allowed individual regions of Ukraine to give official status to languages spoken by at least 10 percent of the oblast's population. This repeal, a goal of Ukrainian nationalists since the law's passage in 2010, was vetoed by the interim president and widely derided as divisive and hotheaded. In the May presidential election two months later, nationalist parties that championed the repeal of the 2010 law won only 2 percent of the vote. Ethno-linguistic questions, a mainstay of Ukrainian politics since independence, have currently taken a backseat due to their potential to inflame tensions and undermine newfound civic solidarity in the face of a pressing external threat. While Poroshenko has come out in favor of Ukrainian remaining the only state language, he has also expressed support for a decentralization plan in which regions will be allowed a measure of self-government, including the right of each region to give minority languages official status alongside Ukrainian. Though it is optimistic, it is not unreasonable to think that this compromise could satisfy both sides and end the political controversy over the language issue.

As a focal point of his candidacy for president, Poroshenko implored unity between eastern and western Ukrainians and between the rich and the poor. While these groups certainly have much to debate amongst themselves about the nature of the Ukrainian state, invasion by authoritarian and ethnocentric Russia has united them behind the realization that the freedom to have a debate is just as important as the debate's outcome. They can only secure this freedom for themselves by securing an independent, democratic and pluralistic Ukraine.

Fedynsky is a freelance journalist previously based in Ukraine. He was a Fulbright student in Kyiv from 2012 to 2013.

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