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



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.


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.

Hungarians see the law as an assault on their culture. Photo:, 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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  1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

    Why the storm? How has the new language law for educational institutions in Ukraine contradicted the norms that are upheld throughout the European Union or in fact for most countries of the world? Do the British (English), the Germans, the French and let us not forget the Russians, not use their dominant or State languages as a mandatory language of instruction? Has the new Ukrainian language law not allowed for the teaching of minority languages wherever a demand can be established? Is the Ukrainian language not the one and only State language of Ukraine? As such, would it not be logical to expect that every student in Ukraine should at least be fluent in the Ukrainian language? So why the fuss and totally unwarranted reprisals from such countries as Hungary? Apart from an extremely rare exception, is the Hungarian language not mandatory in all of their schools? Even more to the point, why has the Hungarian Government been issuing Hungarian passports (including citizenship) to ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine while knowing full well that it is illegal for Ukrainian citizens to have dual citizenship? Was this not a deliberate provocation? In fact, has this tempest in a teapot not been the result of total hypocrisy as indicated by the hyperbole coming from such countries as Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria? You be the judge.

    1. Avatar svend lykkegaard says:

      I am just as surprised as you. I try to remember any country, where they dont have education in the countrys language, but til now i failed.

    2. Avatar Tony says:

      Probably some of those countries hope to steal a bit of territory from Ukraine and their upset that Ukraine is acting in its own interests instead of theirs.

      1. Avatar FF says:

        Romanian people have existed in that area for a long time dude since 1400s and they used to belong to Romania principalities then Romanian country until after WW2 when the territories were taken away by Russians. Same thing with Hungarians. I don’t know about Greeks, Bulgarians but with Russians is pretty clear that Ukraine used to be part of Russia thus there’s gonna be a lot of Russians still around.

    3. Avatar FF says:

      The storm is because they are trying to Ukrainify the people who have lived in those areas for at least 600 years before Ukraine even existed. Hungarians and Romanians have always lived there and those territories kept being passed around like ping pong balls by the superpowers. They landed under Ukranian control and now they are entitle to turn everyone into their own. Is like expecting Indigenous American to become English. Please motherfucker.

      I am from the area and I can tell you guys are completely ignorant of that part of the world . Romanians/Daco-Romans have resisted occupation of many people over the last 2000 years. It has been a living hell a continous influxt of powers trying to turn Romanians into their own but we have resisted and will continue to resist until we are dead. We are not Ukranians we are Romanians and we will not be asimilated unless we want to and we don’t want to.

      1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

        It should be more than obvious that your comments punctuated with totally unnecessary profanity completely miss the point in what has been happening in Ukraine’s educational reforms. To begin with, these reforms are based on integration and not assimilation as the teaching of the languages of ethnic minorities have not been discontinued and that their various cultures will continue to receive the support of the Ukrainian Government. Furthermore, (and I will underline this again) it has always been the right of every independent State to promote the dominant and/or the official State language as the predominant language of instruction of each and every individual country. However, unlike certain countries such as Romania, the Government of Ukraine has made it a point to continue to support the teaching of minority languages. Therefore, any notion there has been or will be a discriminatory process in the teaching of minority languages in Ukraine does not amount to anything more than provocative hyperbole as well as the height of hypocrisy among grieving parties who do not practice what they preach.

        1. Avatar FF says:

          I stopped reading when you said my comments punctuated “with totally unnecessary profanity” . If you want me to read your comment please let me know first why profanity is unnecessary.

          1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            It was not my original intention to respond to your comments as it would appear that you were deeply offended. However, upon further reflection it would be most appropriate to note that you deserve a commendation. Many thanks (I believe that I speak for almost all readers) for giving us just cause to engage in almost never ending laughter.

          2. Avatar FF says:

            I love how you are trying to weasel yourself out of the discussion by avoiding the questions.

            Why profanity is unnecessary?
            Where are you from anyway?

            Gee I wonder why. Is not because you actually have NO REASON why profanity is unnecessary but only used that as a “high moral ground” to prove your point. As in look at me I don’t swear and I don’t ask stupid questions therefore I am automatically correct. No sorry. You still need to prove to me why profanity is unnecessary. You made that comment you need to back it up now otherwise you’re starting to look silly.

            You should never say things you cannot back up with proof.

            Ihor Dawydiak Ukrainian white knight defending Ukraine from “”””invaders”””” who have low morality and swear a lot thus automatically to be laughed at.

            Once you’re done laughing let’s get back on track. Once you answer the 2 questions we will proceed with me reading your comment and answering it.

        2. Avatar valiza2 says:

          Integration bullshit . Ukraine is still a soviet dictature.

          1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Dodon needs to put new locks on his 1937 suitcase.

    4. Avatar Mick Servian says:

      In the other bullshit article it starts by saying teachers wages in Ukraine were lifted from 202 dollars to 340 dollars on average.
      Hahahaha the author doesn’t understand economy. It’s near impossible. Lol
      Oh how the fascists care. Deprive minorities of their language.

  2. Avatar European Minorities says:

    I love this sentence from the author: 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.

    May I remind the author how Ukraine got Transcarpathia??? It was given to Czechoslovakia in 1920 without a referendum from Hungary, then annexed by the Soviets in the 1940’s, before attaching it to the newly created Ukraine. Did Ukraine ask those people if they wanted to be part of Ukraine in the first place? In 1991 there was a referendum held in Transcarpathia, 71% voted to leave the newly created Ukraine, but Ukraine voided the referendum.

    Those Hungarians are NOT immigrants, they were annexed. Ukrainian minority in Hungary are immigrants for example. Two different stories. Not to mention, the Hungarian government is not against teaching of Ukrainian in schools, but the total abolishment of Hungarian from secondary school onwards.

    Also, the author isn’t up to scratch with minority laws in Hungary. I am ethnic German from Hungary, my family emigrated to Hungary in the early 1800’s. We still speak and attend ethnic German schools all funded by the Hungarian government. Not to mention, there is a full German speaking University in Budapest (Andrássy Universität Budapest – or, which the author neglects to mention. Also, I can attend many German speaking kindergardens, primary schools, secondary schools all the way up to ethnic German University in Budapest.

    All classes in these schools are taught in German, yet we were IMMIGRANTS to Hungary, but NOT the Hungarians to Ukraine. They were annexed to the newly artificially created country called Ukraine.

    1. Avatar FF says:

      Those hungarian and romanian territories used to belong to Hungary and Romania before ww2. Those people existed there and did not require to learn Ukrainian.
      Russia took those territories and then later Ukraine was formed. Now all the sudden these people who have existed there for much longer than Ukraine need to learn Ukrainian to be citizens?

      I don’t follow your logic.

      If Native Americans don’t wanna learn American are they no longer Americans and no longer allowed to live there?

      1. Avatar valiza2 says:

        This news article is manipulatory and missinform intl readers on the matter. Minority education in ukrainian is not refused by ukranian minorities. They are good ukranian citizens in 99% cases. This law continues the soviet era policy of russification now ukrainization of local populations who doesn’t have ethnic slavic roots: hungarians, romanians ( including moldovans and volohians wbo are all romanians ), tatars, bulgarians, turks (gagauz), greeks, jews, and other slavic non ukranian minorities.

        Ukraine has inherited from Soviet Union large territories that were not inhabited initially by ukranians. The minorities policy is quite similar to former soviet one. This means minorities are still assimilated by force and socially marginalized . By doing this Ukraine will have no chance to adhere to the UE. In short time the travelling facilities for Ukranians in UE ( visas extempt) will be suspended . Other economic aids and facilities will also be withdrawn. So, will see what will happen then.

        1. Avatar FF says:

          Exactly! This is correct. The reason why the article doesn’t present it properly is because is Euromaidan si pro EU Ukrainian press so they obvs biased towards Ukrainian side.

    2. Avatar FF says:

      In Romania we have an area called Transylvania that used to belong to Hungary. But before Hungary is used to belong to Romanians. Romanians simply took their territory back after ww2 but Hungarians never left because is their land too! So right now there are a few areas where there are hungarians who don’t speak a word of Romanian. You might ask yourself WHY? Makes no sense right? WRONG! Transylvania is both our territory and theirs we coexisted on those lands and we need to share it. It now belongs to Romania but much of those territories have street names and places written in bilingual Romanian and Hungarian.

      Romanians don’t force Romanization of anyone. We are not Russian. If they wanna learn Romanian good if not then up to them. They have their own communities which are bilingual and their local leaders have to be able to speak Romanian as most documents are ultimately in that language but the people themselves don’t have to.

      Similar things happens in Israel and Palestine. There are many Israeli who don’t speak Palestinian language and the other way around. Which language do you force them to learn?