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Ethnic Minorities, Languages and Cultures
The data obtained at the census — the first one since Ukraine regained her independence — that was held in Ukraine in 2001 are still being analyzed. Among the things that came somewhat as a surprise for the analysts was the sharp increase in the number of those who regarded themselves “Ukrainians”. Only 17.3 percent of the Ukrainian population said they were “Russians,” compared to 26.6 percent in the census of 1989. Three hundred years of Russian domination have not been able to do away either with Ukrainians as a nation or with their national awareness.
At the same time, the census has shown that the number of ethnic groups and minorities has grown too, thanks to their revived national awareness. The policy of forced assimilation conducted in the Soviet Union had failed to achieve its goal.
Vladyslav Zhurba, a freelance journalist, talked to Raul Chilachava, deputy head of the Ethnic Minorities and Migrations Committee, about the ethnic situation in Ukraine and other related issues.
Mr Chilachava, you are a poet, scholar and translator, you are an ethnic Georgian — in view of all this, I find it somewhat surprising that you have become a high-ranking official at a Ukrainian committee.
That’s something that does require an explanation. By education, I’m a journalist, and I did work as a journalist for some time, back in the 1960s. But I realized pretty soon that being a journalist under the Soviet regime meant that you had to write not what you think but what others want you to write — in fact, as a journalist, I felt I had to be a servant of the Soviet repressive regime. And I quit journalism for creative writing. But before I began leading a life not connected in any way with working for the government, I worked for one year for the Ukrainian Encyclopaedia Publishers, which was then headed by Mykola Bazhan, a well-known Ukrainian poet. I knew that the work I was doing was useful, but there was too much routine in it, and I left it to become a writer completely on my own. I wrote for several publishers, taught some courses at the university. I published two or three books a year and the royalties I was paid were enough to live on. I was elected a member of the Union of Writers and it made me officially linked to an organization — you could not be completely independent from the state in the Soviet times. There was no such thing as private business, and you could be punished for being “a social parasite.” My membership in the Union gave me an official status, and yet I remained almost independent from the state. In the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, book publishing plummeted, and I found I had to do something urgent to earn my living in a sphere not connected with writing books. At first, I thought of returning to Georgia in the Caucasus where I’m originally from, but the situation there was much worse than in Ukraine — civil war, armed conflicts with Abkhazia and Osetia. In 1992, when I became quite desperate, I was offered a job at a newly created committee dealing with national minorities. I took that job and since then I’ve been working for this committee. I think it was a right decision. I also teach — courses of the Georgian language, literature and history at the Oriental Studies Department of the Kyiv Shevchenko National University, and at other universities. One of my courses deals with the history of literatures of the national minorities of Ukraine.
What does your Committee actually do?
Our Committee is a central body of the executive power in the field of the ethnic minorities’ relations and protection of their rights. We prepare the legal foundation and conduct cultural work. We work along the lines of reviving languages, cultures and traditions of all the ethnic minorities that live in Ukraine. Though basically what I do can be described as “bureaucratic work” there’s a lot that makes it quite interesting — we organize festivals, meetings and conferences. At the end of 2002, we organized the All-Ukrainian Meeting of Heads of Ethnic Culture Societies, and we invited about one thousand people from all parts of Ukraine to attend it. We also monitor the migrations of the population, we deal with the problems refugees face — providing them with shelter, giving them the corresponding status, and so on.
Are there any particular problems that have to be dealt with urgently?
High on our priority list is the issue of returning to Ukraine those ethnics who were deported by the Soviet regime — the Tartars, Karaites, Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks and Germans. The number of ethnic Germans, for example, was reduced dozen of times through deportations and repression. The Crimean Tartars were brutally removed from the Crimea where they had been living for centuries, and it was only in recent years that they began coming back. At present, there are about 250,000 Tartars living in the Crimea. The number of ethnic Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijani has also increased considerably.
At the same time, there is a problem of a great number of ethnic Ukrainians who were deported to Siberia and other areas of the Russian Federation, and of those who found themselves living in Poland after the partition of Poland early in the Second World War and after the post-war alterations of borderlines. Our Committee helps establish contacts with the Ukrainian diasporas, that is with the ethnic Ukrainians living abroad.
Ukraine is a country in which one fourth of its population are ethnics of the backgrounds other than Ukrainian. What, in your opinion, should be the principles of conducting the ethnic policies?
To begin with, we, in Ukraine, should build a civil society based on the principles of the Ukrainian national state as a political unity. Such a concept is acceptable now at the levels of our society. There are 12 million people in Ukraine who are ethnic minorities — it’s the fourth of the population — and their interests cannot be ignored. All of them, together with the ethnic Ukrainians should be involved in building up the European state they all live in.
How would you describe the relations among different ethnics in Ukraine?
Thank God, in this respect we have an encouraging situation in Ukraine — the ethnic Ukrainians’ attitude to other ethnics is very tolerant, and the other way round — the ethnic minorities’ attitude to the ethnic majority is very tolerant as well. And such an attitude is not something that has developed in recent years — it’s been like this for centuries. Ukrainians are a very tolerant people. It does not mean that there are no problems that require solution. All the ethnics, both the minorities and the majority, must be provided with opportunities for preserving and developing their languages and cultures, they must be able to preserve their ethnic identity for themselves and for the generations to come. That is why there is no and there will be no forced Ukrainianization. At the same time, the ethnic minorities must be part of the nation and feel themselves as such, and support the interests of the state. The ethnic minorities should feel that they are part of the whole, that they are citizens of Ukraine, and at the same time they should preserve their ethnic peculiarities and feel connected to their ethnic roots.
What is actually done to support the ethnic minorities?
We provide tuition in the languages of ethnic minorities, books and periodicals are published in these languages, and so on. In ethnic enclaves, such as the Greek ones in the areas close to the Sea of Azov, Bulgarian ones in the areas close to Odesa, Tartar ones in the Crimea and Rumanians and Hungarians in the land of Transcarpathia, we make sure that education is provided at schools in the languages of these ethnics. Gypsies are a separate problem in this respect. They never had their own schools or cultural centres; their language has so many dialects that it creates an additional difficulty in providing tuition in their language. So the first step is to have their language codified in some way, then text books must be written and published, teachers trained. It’s a problem that several European states face, not only Ukraine. The Gypsies’ nomadic way of life leads to a very high level of unemployment among them, and engenders rather negative attitude to them on the part of some people in the settled population, police and local officials. Such a biased attitude is a result, to a considerable extent, of the Gypsies often committing petty crimes — stealing, fraud and the like. Those among the Gypsies who are honest and decent people suffer from such attitudes too. We are working out a government programme for supporting this ethnic minority that numbers about a hundred thousand people.
Some Ukrainians express an opinion that Russians, and some other ethnic minorities, feel themselves more comfortable in Ukraine, than the Ukrainians do themselves. Any reason to believe it’s true?
Not really. It’s a fact though that in some areas of Ukraine, like in the Crimea, for example, it is ethnic Ukrainians who are in the minority, and unfortunately it is not only quantitative minority that creates problems for them. They do not have enough opportunities to maintain and develop their culture at the level they would like to. The Ukrainian state does have to create such a situation in which no ethnic group, be it a majority or a minority, would feel itself in a disadvantaged position. We are an independent, sovereign state, there is no more outside ethnic pressure and we have to learn how to deal with ethnic issues properly all by ourselves.
No ethnic pressure you say? Then what about a very considerable pressure of the Russian language on the Ukrainian language which is exercised through the massive invasion into the Ukrainian market of Russian books? So many of Ukrainian periodicals are in Russian, most of the FM radio stations broadcast in Russian, many TV stations do the same. Shouldn’t some measures protecting Ukrainian be taken?
First of all, we must abide by the Ukrainian laws in everything, broadcasting included. Those TV and radio stations which broadcast entirely in Russian and use Russian ads, violate the Constitution of Ukraine. We do have state bodies that are called upon to control this situation — the National Radio and Television Council and the State Information Policies Committee. Ethnic Ukrainians, particularly young people, themselves should be encouraged to use their language both in public and at home, the prestige of the Ukrainian language should be raised. When I hear someone say, “I’m an ethnic Ukrainian but my native tongue is Russian,” I’m unpleasantly surprised, to say the least. For an ethnic Georgian, there is no such problem —Georgian is always the native language. The Ukrainian language would get a great boost if our political and economic elite would start speaking Ukrainian.
There are positive changes too — according to the data obtained during the 2001 census, 67.5 percent of the population of Ukraine consider Ukrainian to be their native language — it is more than was registered in the 1989 census. Russian was named as the native language by 29.6 percent of the population which is less than revealed in the 1989 census. It means that 85.2 percent of ethnic Ukrainians regard Ukrainian as their mother tongue. Among ethnic Russians, 95.9 percent regard Russian as their mother tongue, and only 3.9 percent of ethnic Russians regard Ukrainian as their mother tongue. Among the ethnic minorities, the ethnic Poles are most “Ukrainianized” — 71 percent of them regard Ukrainian as their mother tongue; 12.9 percent regard Polish as their mother tongue, and for 15.6 percent it is Russian. Ethnic Greeks and Jews are most Russified — over 80 percent of them regard Russian as their native language.
The percentage of ethnic Ukrainian in the entire population of Ukraine at present is about the same it was in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century, and about 70 percent of their children go to Ukrainian schools. As you see there has been no such thing as forced Ukrainianization. Statistically, we are back to the early nineteen-fifties, that is to the times before the massive Russification began. In the late fifties new Soviet laws dealing with “national” schools brought down very considerably the number of schools with Ukrainian tuition.
Some of the Russian politicians complain that the Russian language is being “suppressed.” What can you say about it?
I am of the opinion that Ukraine must have only one official language. Attempts to have Russian introduced as a second official language are groundless. Russian is an official language in the Russian Federation, and I see no reason why it should become an official language of another sovereign state. In areas of Ukraine where Russian is widely spoken, it functions as a language of the ethnic minority preponderant in those areas. No bans on the use of Russian have ever been imposed. The data obtained during the census convincingly show that Russian continues to be used as the language of an ethnic minority, enjoying the same rights as any other language of any other ethnic minority in Ukraine. The Big Brother attitude should be forgotten once and for all — no more of “the language of the ethnic majority of the Soviet Union” forced upon Ukraine or any other state of the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, I understand that saying goodbye to such attitudes may come as psychologically very hard for some people in Russia to accept.
The Russian language of the local Ukrainian variety which differs of course from the language spoken in Russia, will continue to be spoken in Ukraine for quite some time yet. Moreover — it will be not at all easy for the Ukrainian language to oust Russian from the position it occupies in business, sports, FM radio and TV stations.
Some of the Ukrainian political forces have a rather hostile attitude to the European Charter which Ukraine has yet to ratify in order to become a fully integrated member of the Council of Europe. The objections are made on the grounds of this Charter allegedly being hostile to the Ukrainian national movement since the Charter, its opponents in Ukraine say, does not take into account the peculiarities of the language situation in Ukraine and can create further difficulties in fully establishing Ukrainian as a truly national language, spoken and used at all the levels of society. Do you think such fears are justified?
They are not. The whole issue has become much too politicized. There is no danger to the Ukrainian language in this Charter whatsoever. The Charter will just consolidate what has been introduced by the Constitution of Ukraine — the equal opportunities for development provided for all the ethnic minorities living in Ukraine. No demands will be made to open, for example, a university or secondary schools with tuition in Russian. The Charter is aimed at supporting languages spoken by small numbers of people, languages that face the danger of extinction. Russian in not in any such danger, but, for example, such languages as Krymchatska, Crimean-Tartar, and Gagauz are. The Charter is being considered for adoption by Ukrainian parliament. The Council of Europe sponsored a large conference that was held in Kyiv recently, at which the issue of the Charter’s adoption was discussed.
Not all the requirements of the European Unions can be easily adopted to the Ukrainian conditions but if we want to join the European community we must accept them.
From things political to things cultural — do you take any part in maintaining Ukrainian-Georgian cultural relations?
I regard my life in Ukraine as being devoted to maintaining Ukrainian-Georgian cultural relations. I learnt Ukrainian when I studied at the Kyiv Shevchenko National University, and since then I have published many books of translations of Ukrainian authors in Georgia and of Georgian authors in Ukraine, both poetical and prose works. Most of my scholarly papers are devoted to Ukrainian-Georgian cultural relations. In 2001, I had a book published in Georgia which contained my translations into Georgian of poems by 55 Ukrainian poets. This anthology which included works both of poets of old and of the present I consider to be my major achievement. The book reflects many styles and trends of the Ukrainian poetry. I am planning to publish still another, bigger anthology which will contain more works by more poets. I have contributed to the three-volume edition Ukraine-Georgia that deals with cultural issues. These three volumes present a compressive selection of studies on Ukrainian-Georgian cultural and political relations and links. Of a particular importance are the surveys of the Ukrainian-Georgian diplomatic relations in the period between 1918 to 1920, that is the time when both our countries were independent. Studying them can come in handy today as well. Both Georgia and Ukraine are dear to me and I want to see these two independent states flourishing culturally, economically and politically.
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