Language debate sparks fistfight in the Ukrainian Parliament

In 1991, after 69 years as a Soviet Republic, Ukraine became an independent state. Today Ukraine’s only national language is Ukrainian, even though many citizens still speak Russian. In the Ukrainian Parliament last week the President Viktor Yanukovych’s party proposed a new law to make Russian the second official language in the eastern regions of Ukraine (where much of the population is Russian-speaking). (The pink part to the right of Ukraine is Russia.) However, the opposition party blocked the bill from being introduced. Usually in the halls of government when we say “blocked”, we mean they vetoed or voted down the proposed bill. In this case, the parliamentarians physically blocked the podium; a brawl ensued that bloodied lawmakers and even sent one to the hospital with a head injury.

Language can be a contentious political issue because it can either unify or divide a nation. In the case of Ukraine, there is particular antagonism towards Russia because of the independent country’s former relationship with the USSR. Other former Eastern Bloc nations, like Slovakia and Croatia, also only have one official language. However, the Czech Republic has many official languages (including Russian) to accommodate their minority populations.

For another perspective on the political ramifications of official languages, let’s look to the Iberian Peninsula. In Spain, the issue of language can be very complex. Catalan (a language spoken by millions) was suppressed by the government in order to unify the country, but today has seen a resurgence due to the economic success of Catalonia (the region where it is spoken).  In Portugal, locals recently lobbied to make Mirandese, a near-extinct language, into an official language of the region in order to encourage more people to learn it.

Where will Russian be spoken? In space. Learn the full story here.

Do you think the Ukrainian Parliament should allow Russian to be the second official language? Can you think of other examples where a language brings people together—or tears them apart?

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