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While it would be easy, and maybe even largely accurate, to see Russia’s moves in the Crimean Peninsula as a power-play pure and simple, Moscow gives other reasons. All of them have to do with protecting Russian citizens or ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed news organization, offered this brief explanation at the very end of its article on the Russian troops stationed at bases in Crimea.
"Authorities in the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea – where more than half the population is Russian – requested Moscow’s assistance after the self-proclaimed government in Kiev introduced a law abolishing the use of languages other than Ukrainian in official circumstances."
We thought we’d check the last part of that sentence. Did the new Ukrainian government introduce "a law abolishing the use of languages other than Ukrainian in official circumstances?"
The quick answer is, yes -- with a big but.
We’ll walk you through it.
The 1996 Constitution and situation in Crimea
In 1996, the Ukraine Constitution made Ukrainian the country’s official language. Ukraine is a polyglot nation. About two-thirds of the people speak Ukrainian, about a quarter speak Russian, and another 10 percent speak Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and Tatar. Not surprisingly, each language tends to cluster in particular places.
The Constitution, however, also included protections for other languages including Russian: "Free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine shall be guaranteed in Ukraine."
In 1998, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea got its own constitution that placed Russian as a second official language. Article X held that "Russian, being the language spoken by the majority of the population and the language acceptable for purposes of interethnic communication, shall be used in all spheres of public life."
That included legal documents, court proceedings and public services. Bill Bowring is a Britsh legal scholar who studied the language laws in Ukraine and visited Crimea with European monitors. He was last there in 2010 and found Russian used in all official business.
"You could go in to a government office or courtroom and you would only hear Russian," Bowring said. "Anyone who says the Russian-speakers were in any way suppressed would be talking nonsense."
Even a 1999 ruling from Ukraine’s Constitutional Court that affirmed the predominance of Ukrainian included this exception: "Local government bodies, bodies of Crimean Autonomous Republic and local self-government bodies may use Russian and other languages of national minorities along with the state language."
So at least since 1999, Russian was considered an official language of Crimea, but other parts of Ukraine had less protection.
More recent developments
Fast forward to 2012. Parliamentary elections grew close and then-President Viktor Yanukovych worried that his Russian-leaning party would lose ground. Ahead of the elections, Yanukovych pushed for and won passage of a new language law.
It gave local and regional governments the power to give any language official status so long as at least 10 percent of the people spoke it as their native tongue. This had widest resonance for Russian speakers, but it also made a difference for communities where other languages were common. Nearly half of Ukraine’s regions, 13 out of 27, made Russian a second official language.
That law afforded language protections to even more people, but when Yanukovych was ousted last month, the new Ukranian parliament also voted to roll back the 2012 law.
"In the first parliamentary session, that tolerant 2012 law was revoked, which meant that the country reverted to the earlier legislation," said Keith Darden, a professor of international relations at American University.
The parliament voted on Sunday, March 2. By Wednesday, a backlash had begun, but not solely in Russian quarters. That day, the western city of Lviv, a center of Ukrainian nationalism, protested the repeal of the 2012 law and declared a day of speaking Russian. The government of Hungary slammed the move as well.
By Friday, Russian troops had taken positions at the airports and other key centers in Crimea.
On Sunday, the interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, stepped in and said he would not sign the repeal into law.
"He said that he wasn’t going to approve the repeal of the law," said Olga Oliker, an Eastern Europe security analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Oliker believes that Turchynov would have vetoed the parliament’s action under any circumstances, but the sequence of events is clear. The parliament attempted to reassert the sole official status of Ukrainian and then the Russian troops moved in.
We reached out to Russia Today and did not hear back.
Russia Today said the Ukrainians introduced a law abolishing the use of any language except Ukrainian for official business. The Ukrainian parliament did vote to repeal a 2012 law that allowed for more official languages in parts of the country. But the repeal vote was not signed into law by the Ukraine’s interim president.
Also, Crimea -- the center of the crisis currently in Ukraine -- has long held a special status whereby both Russian and Ukrainian could be used in official business. The recent vote would not have changed that, experts told us.
We make no determination as to whether the parliament’s move triggered a call for aid from officials in Crimea.
But on the question of the official language, the statement omits significant context. We rate the claim Half True.
Russia Today, Russia is allowed to have 25,000 troops in Crimea...and other facts you didn’t know, March 4, 2014
International Business Times, Watch Your Tongue: Language Controversy One Of Fundamental Conflicts In Ukraine, March 3, 2014
CIA Factbook, Ukraine
Brookings Institution, What Ukraine’s New Language Law Means for National Unity, Aug. 21, 2012
Government of Ukraine, Constitution of Ukraine - Title X
Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, 1999
Aneta Pavlenko, editor, Multi-lingualism in post-Soviet countries, 2008
Ciklopea Translation Services, Russian language
Washington Post, Crimean autonomy: A vialbe alternative to war?, March 3, 2014
Minorities at Risk Project, Chronology for Crimean Russians in Ukraine, 2004
Interview, Bill Bowring, professor of law, Birkbeck College, University of London, March 5, 2014
Email interview, Keith Darden, professor, School of International Service, American University, March 4, 2014
Interview, Olga Oliker, security analyst, RAND Corporation, March 4, 2014
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