Ukraine wanted to receive the expert conclusion of the Venice Commission first of all to neutralize the political concerns of its neighbors, namely – Hungary and Romania. The Hungarian government was outraged by Article 7 of the new education law, adopted on 5 September 2017, according to which Ukrainian became the official language of instruction for education facilities in Ukraine, including for national minority students, starting from grade 5. Minority languages are envisioned to be taught as separate subjects. Previously, students from national minorities could study up till grade 11 in their minority language. The move is called to strengthen the position of the Ukrainian language, which has been disadvantaged after centuries of what some experts call “linguicide.”
As well, according to the Ministry of Education, the Ukrainian authorities realized that the continuation of the previous language policy in education “not only does not contribute to national accord, but it is also a threat to national security, state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” which led to the restriction of minority language use in the new document. Namely, the notorious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law regulating language use prior to the new law, 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. As well, this led to many representatives of the national minorities to effectively to live in Ukraine without learning Ukrainian: according to Education Minister Hrynevych, 60% of high school graduates from the Romanian and Hungarian minority had flunked their Ukrainian language exam.
The text of Article 7 differs significantly from the preliminary version, which was adopted after extensive discussions with representatives of the minorities. This was an additional irritant in the language quarrel between Ukraine and Romania and Hungary.
The Venice Commission was supposed to settle the international argument, and Ukraine was counting on it – its Euro-Atlantic integration was at stake. Foreign ministers of Ukraine’s neighbors had complained to the Council of Europe and OSCE about the law, the Hungarian and Romanian parliaments had adopted resolutions condemning Ukraine’s law, and the Russian Duma called it “an ethnocide of the Russian people.” But Hungary took the most issue with the law, blocking a Ukraine-NATO Commission meeting, and vowing to block Ukraine’s movement towards EU and NATO unless Ukraine changes its newly-adopted language legislation.
Commission: Ukraine has a right to promote Ukrainian, but criticism justified
On 11 December, the Venice Commission finally published its conclusions. The document acknowledged that Ukraine is
“perfectly entitled to promote the knowledge and use of the official language and to ensure its protection,” noting that already back in 2011 it stressed that the use and protection of languages in Ukraine is “a complex and highly sensitive issue, which has repeatedly become one of the main topics in different election campaigns and continues to be subject of debate – and sometimes to raise tensions – within the Ukrainian society” and that “[t]he balance between regional and/or minority language protection and the protection of Ukrainian as the state language, including the specific situation of the Russian language, continues to be a serious challenge for the authorities of Ukraine”.
The Venice Commission noted that the problem with the Russian language could be solved if Ukraine amends Article 7 of the law, replacing it with a more balanced formulation.
The Commission noted that to ensure the rights of Hungarians and other minorities from EU countries, Ukraine was not obliged to change the notorious Article 7 of the law, but at the same time made a number of recommendations to Ukraine:
- to fully use the possibilities of Article 7 on teaching in minority languages when adopting subsequent legislation;
- to continue ensuring a sufficient proportion of education in minority languages at the primary and secondary levels;
- to improve the quality of teaching of Ukrainian;
- to extend the deadline for implementation for a more gradual reform;
- to exempt private schools from the new language requirements;
- to enter a dialogue with representatives of national minorities and all interested parties;
- to ensure that the preservation of the minorities’ cultural heritage is not endangered.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has responded saying that Ukraine will implement these recommendations, while Verkhovna Rada Chairman Andriy Parubiy has said Article 7 will not be changed. Ukraine’s Education Ministry stated in a press release that it considers the conclusions of the Venice Commission to be fair and balanced, and agrees the implementation deadline should be extended (at present, the Law specifies 2020 as the year when it should enter into full force).
Russian language as the stumbling stone
Ukrainian education expert Ivan Prymachenko considers that the conclusion of the Venice Commission regarding the language question in Ukraine’s education law opens a space for dialogue between all interested parties, enabling to find a balance between learning Ukrainian and minority languages, DW reported. However, he predicts Ukraine may have issues with the Commission’s remarks over teaching in Russian in Ukrainian schools. The Commission experts noted that Ukraine’s law doesn’t list any solutions for languages which are not official EU languages, and the lesser use of these languages is difficult to justify. “The Russian language is protected well enough in Ukraine anyway. In the conditions of war, it’s unlikely that somebody will protect it even more. Even though this question is complicated and debated in Ukraine,” Prymachenko noted.
Nataliya Matkivska, the coordinator of the education program of the civic organization Opora, thinks that the remark of the Venetian Commission regarding the Russian language could raise a new wave of international outrage, and advises official Kyiv to be prepared. At the same time, Ukraine’s Minsitry of Education notes that the recommendations of the Commission, the implementation of which will be monitored by the Council of Europe, don’t mention the Russian language.
Under the adopted law, children from the Russian minority can learn subjects in Russian up to grade 5, after which they can only study Russian as a subject, and Russian literature in Russian.
Russian not endangered in Ukraine, says Foreign Minister
Referring to the problem of Russian raised by the Venice Commission, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote in a column in Yevropeiska Pravda that the Russian language is not endangered in Ukraine: “As in the times of the USSR, it is widely spoken in large cities, is widely represented on Ukrainian TV, to this day it dominates the printed press.”
According to him, the warning of the Venice Commission about the possible discrimination of Russian related to EU languages once again confirms that it’s time for the international community to understand the complex linguistic situation that arose in Ukraine after centuries of Russian domination.
“First of all, it’s worth understanding what the real status and real role of Russian in our country is,” he said.
According to Klimkin, who cites the latest surveys of the Kyiv international institute of sociology, the number of Ukrainian citizens who consider Russian their native language is two times larger than the number of ethnic Russians, and the number of those always speaking in Russian is twice the number of those who consider it their native language. He called this state of affairs “schizophrenic,” said that Ukraine doesn’t doubt the rights of its Russian minority, but only if it concerns its national identification in places of its compact settlement, and said that the rights can be met by a sufficient amount of lessons of Russian language and literature.
Both Ukraine and Hungary claim victory
Ukraine and Hungary both seem to interpret the decision of the Venice Commission to their favor. While Ukrainian officials and media have emphasized that the Commission did not agree to Hungary’s demands regarding Hungarian, the press secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 9 December that “pressure on Ukraine is growing” and the Commission’s conclusion “proves that criticism of Ukraine is justified, and that Ukraine is going against its Constitution and international agreements.”
On 11 December, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó stated that Ukraine must meet three conditions if it wants Hungary’s support: to not limit existing rights of minorities in Ukraine, conduct negotiations with their representatives, and fully implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission. According to him, the Commission’s conclusion makes it clear that the “right decision” is to amend Article 7. In its turn, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published a statement shortly afterward stressing that Ukraine will follow the recommendations of the Commission but will not change the law. The MFA stressed that the Commission’s conclusion allows the further implementation of Ukraine’s education law to be dealt with by experts and called to avoid “a free interpretation” of the recommendations, stop politicizing the question and using it for speculation and confrontation.
Although the MFA didn’t name any specific countries, it’s clear that Hungary is meant.
And so there are no signs that the conflict is resolved.
Experts: bilingualism is a solution
With the international row over the education law behind, Ukraine now needs to think about the real problems faced by the Hungarian and Romanian minorities, which end up isolated and limited in their abilities to participate in Ukrainian processes in result of their poor, and sometimes even nonexistent knowledge of Ukrainian.
According to Yuliya Tyshchenko, an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research who participated in projects to implement multilingual education in Crimea before it was annexed by Russia, Ukraine’s national minorities need real multilingualism, something that they lack now as they know only their minority language well. For this, parents and teachers need to be worked with, and world practices needs to be studied and taken into account.
Tyshchenko thinks that Ukraine should look for methods of language learning that work, and its problems would be solved:
“In Ukraine, the amendment to the law leaves only one model: to study in the minority language in primary school and further on to have it as a subject while studying in the state language. I think we could have acted more flexibly here. We have good practices in Zakarpattia with the Slovak school, and in the Chernivtsi Oblast with introducing multiligual education. The Hungarians were always against it. The situation with Hungarian schools doesn’t encourage multilingualism at all, and the schools are against any sort of experiment, but they need to be worked with. We need to stimulate them so that there would be more Ukrainian there, so the whole process wouldn’t be in Hungarian. This doesn’t mean the changes have to be radical, I think.”
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