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"We Want To Simplify Ukraine": Olga Onuch on Language and Political Preferences in Ukraine
25 July, 2019

Russian has long been widely used in Ukraine, but when Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to protect the Russian speakers of the Donbas and Crimea, the question of which language Ukrainians use became political – many deliberately switched to Ukrainian.

As days ago millions of Ukrainians headed to the polls for the third time this year for parliamentary elections, political scientist Olga Onuch argued that language alone does not drive all behaviors and people’s voting preferences. 

“The language that [people] use at home, that’s a type of embeddedness,” she said. 

“It could be actually bestowed on them by their partner or a grandparent who lives in the house, and they’re bringing the Russian or Ukrainian language in the house. The other type of embeddedness is the language that they use at work. Together when you start throwing them into the equation and you start analyzing, you start realizing that language is not always a key driver of political preferences or policy and behavior.”

That pattern, she says, has been backed by her own research and not only. 

Language, undeniably, has at least partially shaped the conversation about national identity. The Kremlin has for a long time claimed that language formed part of the reason for the conflict in the east. Some analysts have claimed that language plays a role in shaping political preferences too. 

But Onuch says those that say Ukraine is a country divided by Russophones and Ukrainophones just don’t get it. Sure, she said, people who have strong patriotism are more likely to be Ukrainian speakers.

But patriotism is very strong among those who speak and identity ethnically as Russian too, she added. 

“It’s worth exploring those groups a little bit further and understanding what causes their patriotism and inversely what ticks people away from patriotism in other cases,” she said. 

In April, to Moscow’s ire, Ukraine’s parliament passed a language law, which is due to come into force this month. Under the new law, state and local authorities, enterprises, institutions, and organizations will only be allowed to use the Ukrainian language. 

READ MORE: Ukraine's New Language Law, Explained

This law was highly backed by former president Petro Poroshenko. Language played a key role in his re-election campaign. "Army, language, faith" read his campaign billboards. 

Onuch says that showed that Poroshenko’s team wasn’t in touch with the population. 

“It was about this patriotic, militarist message. It was something that was not for central Ukraine, it was certainly not for eastern or southern Ukraine. And in Ukraine to win the elections...you have to win central Ukraine,” she said. 

“And focusing on what is a rather restrictive language policy, for instance, was a mistake in the campaign. Tomos - that was very important but perhaps it wasn’t a smart strategy for a political campaign year.” 

She said a big problem was that previous politicians - namely the former president - weren’t focusing “on the bread and butter issues.”

“In the last five years a majority of Ukrainians got poorer. People, especially in the south and east are having a harder time just getting by,” she said. 

Onuch believes it’s worth not just looking at language and ethnicity but at socioeconomic factors.

“Our initial results show us that you can’t get rid of the importance of region in your analysis,” she said. “That tells me that we need to turn to political economy, that we need to speak to our political economy friends, that we need to understand what else is different about these regions. History might be one thing, culture might be another thing but certainly it seems like political economic inequality, specifically economic inequality is hugely important."

“You can still have a very poor region in the west but perhaps it’s more equal than a region in the south or east. And it’s that inequality and that feeling of inequality that can drive dissatisfaction with certain things or can connect people to certain political preferences.”

She said another important factor is “the feeling that one was a loser of transition”, meaning the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Donbas, for example, saw a huge economic downturn in the years that followed. Today, the region is shrouded in Soviet nostalgia. 

“If they perceive themselves as economic or political losers of that transition... they have certain views on the conflict,” Onuch said. “They are less likely to support NATO, they are less likely to support European association...they are less likely to support democracy point blank.”

She said these are some of the things that aren’t talked about enough. 

“We keep focusing on language and we want to simplify Ukraine, draw this awful neat line that separates the country into two spaces,” she said. “It hasn’t been that way for a while.”

READ MORE: Historian Snyder on Language, Zelenskyy and Vakarchuk