Ukraine’s new education law unleashes international storm over minority language status

Photo: slovoidilo.ua 

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On 5 September 2017, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a new education law called to advance the much-needed education reform. Among many things, it will raise teachers’ minimal salaries from $202 to $370 and extend the basic education study period from 11 to 12 years. Expected to come into force in 2020, the law has been hailed as revolutionary by Ukrainian politicians, but one article of the law received wide criticism from Ukraine’s neighbors: the foreign ministers of Hungary, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria have complained to the Council of Europe and OSCE about the violation of the rights of their minorities in Ukraine. Let’s see what the new law stipulates and whether Ukraine was wrong in adopting it.

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Ethnic minorities in Ukraine. Image: social media

What does the new law change in the education languages of Ukraine?

Previously, students in Ukraine were able to study all 11 years in the language of an ethnic minority living in Ukraine, meaning that all lessons were conducted in the minority language, and the state Ukrainian language was present only in studying separate subjects – Ukrainian language, literature, history. Right now, 10% of students – some 400,000 children – study in such schools. Most of them are Russian language schools but there are also 5 Polish schools, 176 Hungarian schools, under 200 Romanian schools, a few Moldovan schools, one Slovak school, and a Crimean Tatar school is being created, according to Ukraine’s deputy education minister Pavlo Hobzei.

The new law changes that. The entire education process in all educational institutions will be in Ukrainian. Representatives of national minorities have the right to study in separate groups of kindergartens and elementary school classes where the language of the minority will be used in the educational process besides Ukrainian.

Starting from Grade 5, the education process will be in Ukrainian with exceptions made for the representatives of indigenous peoples (first of all Crimean Tatars), who can keep bilingual education until the end of high school. Minority languages and the literature of the minority will be studied as courses. Additional subjects may also be studied in the language of the minority (the exact list is to be worked out later), plus there is an option for studying terminology in the minority languages at all stages of the education process. For students studying in non-Ukrainian schools at the moment, phasing out will be done gradually.

Education institutions, however, have the chance to teach one or more disciplines in two languages or more – Ukrainian, English, or a language of the EU – but not Russian.

Why is Ukraine making changes to its education language status quo anyway? 

First of all, Ukraine has the experience of being split up between various empires and states, each of which attempted to assimilate Ukrainians by destroying their language. In the 337 years Ukraine had been under foreign rule, it faced 60 prohibitions against the Ukrainian language, making it, paradoxically, in need of protection in independent Ukraine. The last attempts to destroy Ukrainian concerned the cultivation of the “Soviet man” in the USSR and were aimed to make the native languages of the 15 Soviet republics obsolete, replacing them by “inter-ethnic” Russian. Many of the prohibitions enabled restrictions and discrimination of education in Ukrainian. Ukraine’s acting education legislature was, in many ways, designed to pursue the same goal: the notorious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law regulating language use, called the “Kremlin’s Trojan horse in Ukraine,” has been accused of serving as a tool of Russification and attacking the Ukrainian language in Ukraine: it allowed many schools to simply ignore Ukrainian.

Graphic by Ganna Naronina. Click to enlarge.

Therefore, after 337 years of language oppression by empires, Ukraine is trying to finally undo the damage done to its language and identity.

The current isolation of ethnic minorities is another reason for wanting to increase teaching in Ukrainian in schools. According to education minister Liliya Hrynevych, 36% of 2016 school graduates in Zakarpattia Oblast flunked their Ukrainian language final exam. In its predominantly populated by Hungarians Berehove Raion, that figure rises to 75%. 60.1% of Ukrainian high school graduates from the Romanian and Hungarian minority who passed their math and Ukrainian history final exams in one of those languages flunked the Ukrainian language exam. These children have no opportunity to enter Ukrainian universities and are de-facto cut off from Ukrainian society. Not only does this breed isolationism and separatism, a problem in Zakarpattia where Hungary has been issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians; it increases the chances that these children will emigrate to the country whose language they speak.

Why are the ethnic minorities upset?

On 7 September, the Romanian MFA stated they were concerned about Article 7 of Ukraine’s language law and claimed that according to the Convention on protection national minorities, Ukraine is required to acknowledge the right of representatives of national minority to education in their languages. On 11 September, Moldova‘s President Igor Dodon criticized the law on his facebook. But the harshest criticism came from Hungary: its Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto announced Ukraine had “stabbed Hungary in the back” and said that Ukraine’s decision “totally contradicted European values.” On 11 September, Szijjarto ordered Hungarian diplomats to stop supporting Ukraine in international organizations; on 14 September, Bulgaria’s MFA announced it will do the same. As well, the foreign ministers of Hungary, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria complained to the Council of Europe and OSCE about the violation of the rights of their minorities in Ukraine. Predictably, Russia was also displeased. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that in adopting the education law, Ukraine attempted to “totally Ukrainize” the education space of the country, which contradicts the Ukrainian Constitution and the international agreements Kyiv undertook in the humanitarian sphere.”

Representatives of local minority communities called on President Poroshenko to veto the law. The Romanian community of Chernivtsi Oblast accused the law of violating articles 10, 22, 23, and 53 of the Ukrainian Constitution. Representatives of Hungarian organizations in Zakarpattia Oblast signed an appeal to Poroshenko and other officials, saying that it could be viewed as “steps to artificially hasten the assimilation of national minorities.” The Zakarpattia Oblast governor Hennadiy Moskal also called to veto the law, accusing it of violating the European charter for regional languages, the Law on national minorities in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s international agreements with its neighboring countries.

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Hungarians see the law as an assault on their culture. Photo: fidelitas.hu, from the protest at the Ukrainian embassy

That sounds bad. Is it true?

According to state officials, no. The official position of the Ukrainian state is that the education law is fully in line with the Ukraine’s Constitution, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. After meeting with ambassadors and diplomatic representatives from 11 countries (Hungary, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Greece, Israel, Belarus and others) as well as EU representatives on 15 September, Liliya Hrynevych announced Ukraine is ready to give the contested Article of the law for expertise to the Council of Europe (sent to the Council on September 18) and that Ukraine and that Ukraine will collaborate with the embassies of the affected states on the implementation of the 7th Article of the law.

Hrynevych also stressed that the countries criticizing Ukraine have much weaker protections for Ukrainian minorities at home: none of them have schools with the entire education process in Ukrainian. There, students from the Ukrainian national minority has a chance to study Ukrainian only as a subject, or selected subjects in Ukrainian. Everything else is studied in the national language of the country. Thus, Hrynevych concludes, the proposed law is a normal European practice.

However, education institutions with teaching fully in the minority language do exist in the EU – for example, the German Gymnasium in Baja, Hungary, teaches in German and has Hungarian language and literature classes.

According to Ihor Todorov, a political scientist, and professor at the Uzhgorod National University (UNU), in most European countries secondary and university education in minority languages is financed from private sources, not the state. He adds that Hungary has been active in promoting its education abroad, including on Ukrainian territory, by investing in the development of general school education, the Ukrainian-Hungarian Research Institute of UNU, and the Ferenz Racoczi Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute. At the same time, it’s impossible to have Hungarian citizenship without knowing Hungarian, while in Ukraine it’s possible for citizens to not know Ukrainian thanks to the existence of this Hungarian language enclave. Todorov maintains that Ukraine should demand identical conditions to defend the rights of its ethnic minorities abroad as enjoyed by ethnic minorities living in Ukraine.

Still, isn’t Ukraine taking rights away?

According to Nataliya Shulga, advisor to the Education Minister of Ukraine, Ukraine, on the contrary, is giving children from ethnic minorities the right to continue their education in Ukraine. When minority representatives make a choice to not know Ukrainian, this means that they probably don’t plan on living in Ukraine, and if so, they need to go to that country and receive an education there at its expense.

Political observer Dmytro Tuzhanskyi writes minorities receive many benefits from compulsory studying in Ukrainian. First, they open up more possibilities for self-realization at home in Ukraine, giving an alternative to emigration. And second, it gives minorities the change to raise leaders who will be able to actively lobby for the minority community in Ukraine while understanding the Ukrainian society in which they are living. Also, any attempts to block Ukraine’s EU collaboration, as Hungary and Bulgaria have announced the intention of doing, will have a negative impact first of all on the minorities living in Ukraine, as the border regions benefit the most from EU ties.

In any case, the adopted law is a framework document and its details will be elaborated in cooperation with representatives of national minorities. As of 18 September, it hasn’t been signed by Rada speaker Andriy Parubiy, who is waiting for the final touches of the profile committee.

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