Participants of a rally outside the Ukrainian parliament on 25 April support the adoption of a law expanding the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine. Photo: Roman Kolyada
On 25 April, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted law #5670-d “on the functioning of the Ukrainian language as a state language,” which greatly expands protections for Ukrainian in Ukraine. The heavily debated law was adopted by 278 out of 423 MPs after months of reviewing over 2,000 amendments. But the first version of the law was submitted to Parliament back in June 2017. Now the law should be signed by the president. Outgoing President Poroshenko, who on the night of the second round of elections on 21 April when he lost to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, announced that he is ready to sign the law before Zelenskyy is inaugurated. The law will come into force two months after publication.
In the morning of 25 April, hundreds joined a rally in support of the law in front of the Verkhovna Rada.
What does the law say?
- It defines the Ukrainian language as the only state language and official language of the country. Local authorities are prohibited from interfering with the use of the Ukrainian language. Attempts to give official status to any other language will be treated as “actions aimed at forcibly changing or overthrowing the constitutional order,” which is a serious crime.
- The law does not apply to the sphere of private communication and religion but obliges every citizen to know the state language. Applicants for Ukrainian citizenship will be required to pass an exam on knowledge of Ukrainian. Exemptions are envisioned only for army servicemen or those for whom the granting of citizenship is a state interest – but such persons will be required to study the state language in the next year.
- Centers for free studies of Ukrainian for adults are planned to be created in each region.
- All categories of public servants, state employees, and many others, from the president, members of the government and parliamentarians of all levels, to prosecutors, police officers, judges, teachers, and physicians, are obliged to be fluent in Ukrainian and use it in performing their duties.
- A National Commission on Standards for the State Language will be established which will approve language standards (terminology, spelling, certification standards) and will review the level of fluency in Ukrainian for persons taking up public office or acquiring citizenship.
- A Language Commissioner with a secretariat and staff will control the implementation of the law, considering cases of violations of citizens’ linguistic rights and inactivity of the authorities. If the Commissioner establishes that the law was violated, a protocol will be drawn up, and the violator will have 30 days to eliminate the violation. If the violator ignores the request, he/she will be required to pay a penalty of UAH 5,100-6,800 ($191-255) during 15 days or appeal the decision in court. These rules will be come into force six months after the appointment of the Commissioner.
- The language of education and science is Ukrainian, but representatives of national minorities have the right to be instructed in their native language in pre-school and primary education. National cultural societies can teach in minority languages.
- In state institutions, disciplines can be taught in two or more languages – in the state language, English, in other official languages of the European Union, but not Russian.
- External independent evaluation tests and entry exams should be only in Ukrainian, except for tests on foreign languages – this rule will apply from 1 January 2030.
- Only Ukrainian can be the language of instruction at higher education institutions. Universities can translate part of the disciplines into English or another official EU language, but not Russian.
Speaking in the Verkhovna Rada during the vote, Mykola Kniazhytskyi, head of the Rada committee on culture and spirituality, also informed that law #5670-d requires separate legislation with protection of the linguistic rights of national minorities and indigenous peoples to be adopted within six months.
- All concerts, theatrical performances, public events organized by state entities in Ukraine should be narrated in Ukrainian. If the presenter does not know Ukrainian, his speech should be translated. Other languages can be used for reasons of artistic necessity.
- All posters and tickets must be printed in Ukrainian; if other languages are used, their type size should not be larger than Ukrainian.
- Ukrainian should be the exclusive language of museums and exhibitions, but information about museum objects may be duplicated in other languages.
- Foreign films in Ukraine need to be shown with Ukrainian subtitles or voiceover in Ukrainian (this practice already exists).
- Films created in a Ukraine are to be shown with Ukrainian soundtracks, including those created through a voiceover. Phrases in another language can be used in a film, but their quantity should not exceed 10% and they should have Ukrainian subtitles (this norm will only be applied for films released two years after the law is adopted).
- At festivals, films can be screened in the original language but with subtitles and a permit from the state film agency. In cinemas, the number of sessions with films in a foreign language cannot exceed 10%.
- Theatrical performances in a foreign language in state or communal theaters should have subtitles in Ukrainian.
- Film streaming services should provide the Ukrainian audio track by default (if they have it). The state should assist them in creating or obtaining rights to such a track.
- All these norms will come into force two years after the law enters into force.
In the media:
- The law increases the share of the Ukrainian language on the air, in five years it should be 90% for national TV channels and radio (75% at present), and at least 80% for regional ones (60% at present).
- Broadcasters in the Crimean Tatar language or other languages of indigenous peoples. For them, the quota is 75% (programs in the state language + the language of the indigenous people), of which at least 30% will be Ukrainian.
- Publishers are obliged to publish at least one version of their printed publication in Ukrainian; the content and volume of all language versions must be identical. This carries additional costs for publishers who at present print their publications only in Russian. These innovations will take effect 30 months after the adoption of the law.
- Places selling printed media must make sure that no less than half of the titles are in Ukrainian.
- These rules do not apply to media in the Crimean Tatar, English, and EU languages. There are no exceptions for Russian.
- Internet media should have a home page in Ukrainian.
- Publishing houses are obliged to print no less than 50% of their titles in Ukrainian. Bookstores must sell no less than 50% of titles in Ukrainian, as well. Specialized bookstores (for foreign literature, foreign language textbooks) are exempt from this norm. Publishers and merchants will have a two-year transition period.
Software and websites:
- Computer programs sold in Ukraine should have an interface in Ukrainian, English, or an EU language, but not in Russian. This will impact the video game market, in which the main language now is Russian.
- State bodies must use programs exclusively in Ukrainian, or English if this is impossible.
- Websites and social media pages of companies and media organizations must have a Ukrainian version with the same information as other language versions. The transition period is 18 months.
- Customers must be serviced in Ukrainian in all locations, including internet shops. Clients may receive services in other languages upon their request. The transition period is 18 months.
- Advertising should be exclusively in Ukrainian, with exemptions for languages of national minorities. The transition period is 6 months after the law comes into effect.
Punishment for violations:
Violators will carry responsibility not only before the Commissioner but also administrative responsibility, after a transition period of three years. Fines range from UAH 3,400 to 11,900 ($128-447).
Why was the law introduced?
The law was called to fill in the legal void in Ukraine’s language policy after the Constitutional Court of Ukraine canceled the previous law on language issues in February 2018, citing violated adoption procedures. This “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko” law, which was adopted in 2012, allowed for two official languages in regions where national minorities exceeded 10%. A number of oblast and regional councils recognized Russian as a regional language, as well as the Hungarian, Moldovan, and Romanian languages in western Ukraine.
In the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014, the Verkhovna Rada canceled the “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko” law, but it was not signed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.
However, beyond legal issues, the real reason for the adoption of law #5670-d is to reverse centuries of Russification, which have led to what some term the “linguicide” of the Ukrainian language. At least 60 prohibitions of Ukrainian had been enacted during the 337 years that Ukraine was under foreign rule, most – by the Russian empire, with the goal of assimilating Ukrainians and destroying their sense of national identity, thus preventing independence tendencies. This had led to the repressed status of the Ukrainian language, which even today carries the stigma of being a “second-rate language” and “language of the peasants.” In the USSR, the Communist authorities went to great pains to create a template for the “average Soviet citizen” who spoke Russian from Riga to Vladivostok, and so Ukrainian was gradually shoved out of the public life.
After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Ukrainian was de-jure established as the sole state language, but de-facto whole Ukrainian regions of the south-east were Russophonic, with their residents being unable to speak the state language fluently. The Ukrainian music, cinema, culture, and printing industries continued to live under the shadow of the Russian market, which inhibited their development during the last 27 years. Widespread Russian media and culture products in Ukraine have, in their turn, provided an unimpeded playing field for Russian soft power and influence.
Today, Russia continues to use the Russian language as an instrument of imperialism, with Russian President Vladimir Putin having made declarations that he sees the limits of the “Russian world” where the Russian language is used. The Kremlin cited alleged oppression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as one of the key reasons to justify Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and Putin has on many occasions vowed to “protect the rights” of Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, contempt for the Ukrainian language usually goes hand in hand with contempt for Ukrainian statehood and culture, and support for Russia’s imperial ambitions.
In the circumstances of Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine, support for the Ukrainian language is viewed by many as a national security issue.
What is the situation with languages in Ukraine?
According to the 2001 census, 67.53% of Ukrainian citizens said that their native language was Ukrainian, and 29.59% – Russian.
However, not all citizens who consider Ukrainian their native language speak it exclusively on a daily basis. A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted in February-March 2019 found that 46% of Ukrainians speak predominantly or exclusively Ukrainian with their family members, while 28.1% of Ukrainians spoke predominantly or exclusively Russian. 24.9% of Ukrainians spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, and 0.2% of Ukrainians use other languages for communication in their family.
It also found that over the last 20 years, the proportion of Ukrainians who believe Russian should be studied to the same extent as Ukrainian dropped from 46% to 29.9%.
At the same time, most Ukrainians believe that only Ukrainian should be the state language of Ukraine. A poll conducted by the Rating group in November-December 2018 found that 63% of Ukrainians think that the state language should be only Ukrainian, 17% support a state language status for Russian, and 15% support giving Russian the status of an official language in separate regions. Predictably, residents of the south-eastern Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Odesa oblasts were most in favor of a state language status for Russian.
What other Ukrainization incentives were adopted in Ukraine after the Euromaidan revolution?
After the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine adopted several policies in support of the Ukrainian language. One concerned language in education – it establishes Ukrainian as the only language f instruction from the fifth grade onward. In 2017, language quotas for songs on radio were adopted (25% of songs in Ukrainian on the first year of the law, 30% on the second year, 35% on the third), which according to experts led to the flourishing of the Ukrainian music industry. Likewise, quotas for the Ukrainian language were adopted for TV and radio programs (75% for national programs, 60% for regional programs). As well, state support for domestic film production has led to the flourishing of Ukrainian films.
Who supports the law, who opposes it?
MP Iryna Herashchenko, one of the champions of the law, captured some moments from the parliamentary vote, which was attended by former President Yushchenko and former Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) Patriarch Filaret.
In the months of reviewing the amendments, the law was advocated for and endorsed by civil society representatives, as well as actors, writers, poets, academics, and church leaders.
The only parliamentary faction which fully opposed the adoption of the law was the Opposition Bloc, the successor to runaway ex-president Yanykovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.
Outgoing President Poroshenko has praised the law, calling it a historic decision and a symbol of the Ukrainian people and statehood. Poroshenko, a champion of Ukrainization policies, held his (unsuccessful) election campaign under slogan “Army, language, faith.”
However, president-elect Zelenskyy, a comic actor from the Russophonic south-east, has said that the law was adopted without due public discussion and promised to “carefully analyze” the law after he is inaugurated, to “ensure constitutional rights and interests of Ukrainian citizens are respected.”
In a Facebook post on his page, which was renamed from Russian to Ukrainian on the day of the adoption of the law, Zelenskyy alleged that it was adopted during the “election cycle,” which made it a “hostage of political rhetoric.”
Zelenskyy stated he supported the status of the Ukrainian language as the sole state language of the country, but opposed the methods named in the law: “The state should encourage the development of the Ukrainian language through creating incentives and positive examples, not be bans and punishments, complicating bureaucratic procedures, and increasing the number of state officials instead of reducing them.”
However, public discussions regarding the law had been ongoing for over two years; as well, the 2,000 amendments which were reviewed testify to the robust public discussions regarding the law.
Zelenskyy, whose humorous project “Kvartal 95” performs exclusively in Russian, has had difficulties speaking in Ukrainian throughout his campaign and several days ago announced he is searching for a teacher of Ukrainian.
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