By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics, and is author of the Irrussianality blog.
In the 1920s, after its violent exit from British rule, many in Ireland wanted to abandon the use of English. They lost the argument, and the country profited. Many former Soviet republics would do well to heed the Irish example.
There’s no agreement as to which is the best country in the world. But according to the 2020 ‘Best Countries’ report, the top two places are Switzerland and Canada. You can take that with a pinch of salt, but there’s an interesting thing that Switzerland and Canada have in common – they both have more than one official language (three in Switzerland’s case, and two in Canada’s).
They are not alone. The four richest countries in the world in terms of normal GDP per capita are Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland, three of whom have more than one official language (French, German, and Luxembourgish in the case of Luxembourg; English and Irish in the case of Ireland). Many other successful states also give official status to minority languages at the local level – in fact, this is pretty much the norm.
All this undermines one of the great myths of nationalist ideology – namely, that the ideal state is linguistically homogenous. The nationalist idea is relatively simple: Language and cultural identity go together; a shared cultural identity contributes towards the political legitimacy of the state; and so a single language within a single space strengthens the state.
Yet, whatever the theory, the facts above show that having a multiplicity of languages within a state is not a hindrance to being rich, stable, democratic, or anything else you might consider desirable. Nor does it matter if you share one or more of your languages with other countries. The fact that the Irish speak English, and that the Swiss and Luxembourgers speak French and German, doesn’t make them subordinate to the British, the French, or the Germans. Nor does it make them any less successful.
Unfortunately, in parts of Eastern Europe, political leaders seem to have a very different point of view, particularly when it comes to the existence in their countries of a minority that speaks the Russian language. This minority is seen as subversive, and nationalist leaders demand that it be eliminated by means of assimilation into the dominant group. This in turn requires linguistic homogenization.
One example is Latvia, a quarter of whose population is Russian-speaking. In 2018, the Latvian parliament passed a law mandating that all high school education, including at private schools, be in the Latvian language. This eliminated all Russian language or bilingual schools. Meanwhile, the Latvian government has banned various Russian TV channels, and a law passed this year makes it illegal for Latvians even to watch those channels (many can pick up broadcasts from the Russian Federation).
Last week, the Council of Europe denounced the Latvian government’s polices, saying that “such broad scope of application of linguistic requirements adversely affects the possibility for non-native speakers of Latvian,” and noting that, “restrictive policies and other pressures driven by a political agenda, rather than evidence-based decision-making, are particularly evident in the education system, the media, and with regard to the use of national minority languages in many areas of public life.”
It is clear, however, that Latvia intends to ignore the Council’s complaint. A few days ago, the country’s president, Egils Levits, said that over the next few years, Latvia will “become a Latvian state” based on “the elements of Latvianism – language and culture – which distinguish us from other countries.” The commitment to cultural homogenization could not be clearer.
A similar process has been underway in Ukraine since the 2014 Maidan. Since then, a number of restrictions have been placed on the use of Russian. For instance, publishers of Russian-language media now have to produce an equal number of copies of whatever they publish in Ukrainian (a rather absurd and expensive requirement for those media whose audience does not include many Ukrainian speakers). This limitation does not apply to those publishing in languages of the European Union, or for indigenous ethnic groups, such as Crimean Tatars. Meanwhile, the Russian language can no longer be used for education in Ukraine, although some classes are permitted in EU languages. As can be seen by the many exemptions for other tongues, these measures are clearly targeted at Russian.
Speaking on Tuesday to a forum on culture, media, and tourism, the Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, framed the issue as a question of national security. He said:
“Unfortunately, the heritage of the Soviet past which we received came in the form of the Russian language because of Russification… We have not yet identified the Ukrainian language as the primary and fundamental language of our independence. We have not yet identified the importance of the English language, which should become the second language of our country so that we will stay safe from the threats of the Russian Federation.”
According to Danilov, post-independence Ukraine dug a hole for itself by “playing games with the Russian language,” and “Now we have found ourselves deep in that hole and it’s being used 100 percent by the Russian Federation,” which is allegedly using the defense of Russian-language speakers as an excuse for supporting the rebellion in Donbass. Danilov’s message is clear: The fact that so many Ukrainians speak Russian is a threat to national security; they have to be made to speak something else.
There is something deeply contradictory about all this. Latvia and Ukraine claim on the one hand to be liberal democracies (or in Ukraine’s case to be marching in that direction). But at the same time, they insist on an ethnic and cultural definition of citizenship rather than a civic one founded on citizens’ equal rights as citizens. In the process, they are pursuing incompatible goals.
This is a self-destructive policy. Efforts to repress minority communities breed resentment and divide a state, weakening it in the process. By contrast, successful multilingual nations such as Switzerland and Canada have learnt not only to live with diversity but to embrace and celebrate it. In the process they have turned it into a strength. Supporters of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution often say that they want Ukraine to be a “normal country.” They should think about what that means.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.