KYIV – Ukraine’s new law on education, which the Presidential Administration says is more inclusive towards minorities and will improve their integration into society, has received backlash from at least three countries in the region.
Russia, Hungary and Romania, all of which have sizable or concentrated minority enclaves in the country, have criticized the law that President Petro Poroshenko signed on September 25 and which went into effect three days later.
The law “raises the role of the official Ukrainian language in the learning process” and emphasizes the “importance of steadfast observance during education of the humanitarian rights of national minorities who live on the territory of Ukraine,” the presidential administration said in an official statement published online on September 25.
“Ukraine demonstrates and will continue to demonstrate such an attitude towards national minorities that is in accordance with our international obligations and which is in harmony with European standards and a model for our neighboring countries,” Mr. Poroshenko said.
Most unsettling to Russia, Hungary and Romania, is the clause that mandates obligatory Ukrainian-language instruction starting in the fifth grade. Those attending schools where instruction is in their native language will be able to continue learning it in separate classes. Ethnic groups native to Ukraine, like the Crimean Tatars, are able to continue study in their native language.
Before, the opposite was the case as regards those three and other minority languages, while study of Ukrainian was relegated to separate courses for up to four times a week, said Yegor Stadnyi, an analyst for the Kyiv-based non-profit education, migration and urban development center CEDOS.
“This law is about integration and is good will tied to education that still allows minority-language speakers to continue studying their native tongues,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly. “If we don’t give minorities more access to Ukrainian, then they won’t go into other spheres after graduating [high] school, they won’t enter a university [where instruction is exclusively in Ukrainian], they won’t enter public administration. The law, in general, promotes the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation.”
Mr. Stadnyi added that the law doesn’t prevent additional schooling in minority languages on a private level, whether the initiative is parental, funded by foreign governments or through non-profit groups.
Hungary reacted by saying that it will prevent any future steps by Kyiv towards integration with the 28-nation member European Union, of which it is a part.
“Hungary will block all steps within the European Union that would represent a step forward in Ukraine’s European integration process in the spirit of the Eastern Partnership program,” Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said on September 25, before the law was signed into force. “We can guarantee that all this will be painful for Ukraine in future.”
In turn, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis cancelled a trip to Kyiv that was scheduled for this month, and he subsequently released a joint statement with his Hungarian counterpart denouncing the education law.
Concentrated enclaves of ethnic Hungarians and Romanians, in particular, reside in Ukraine’s westernmost region of Zakarpattia, also known as Transcarpathia. Romanian communities are also present in the southwestern oblast of Chernivtsi.
Russia, home to the world’s largest Ukrainian diaspora with no daily Ukrainian-language schools and whose proxies have banned Ukrainian-language instruction in the occupied part of the easternmost Donbas region, also criticized Ukraine’s law.
“The Russian State Duma and Federation Council adopted a resolution on September 27 condemning the law as infringing upon the rights of the Russophones in Ukraine,” Brussels-based Carnegie Europe wrote in an opinion column on October 2. “Interestingly, Russia is not disputing the labeling of Russians… as a ‘national minority’ anymore. Instead, Moscow’s key objective is to tarnish Ukraine’s image in Europe as a country unwilling to adhere to the union’s values and norms.”
Politics over humanitarian intention
The perturbed reaction by the three neighboring countries is foremost political in nature and in context, Ukrainian experts said. That reaction is heightened by the fact that in 2018 Hungary will hold parliamentary elections, while Russia will have presidential elections.
“Of course, the law adheres to international conventions [on minorities]… there is a political context here,” Mr. Stadnyi said. “Those countries spread their influence through schools – Russia is a different case, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to spread the Russian language and now we’ve seen Russian tanks enter the country… I don’t see a problem with minority rights here.”
An ongoing yearly study conducted by the Ukrainian non-profit group Space of Freedom titled “The State of Ukrainian Language” found that Russian is still the predominant language in the nation in everyday life.
In the group’s latest report published in 2016 – before Kyiv enacted stricter language quotas on television and radio – the group found that the “Russian language is predominant on TV and radio, in print and in the customer service industry.”
Ukrainian as a native language is spoken by 60 percent of the population, according to the same report, whereas Russian usage stood at 15 percent. The remainder of respondents said they spoke both.
Currently, there are 581 daily Russian-language schools, 75 Romanian and 71 Hungarian, according to data provided by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. Some 3.7 million pupils are in grades 1 through 11; of them, some 360,000 attend daily publicly funded Russian-language schools, and an additional 900,000 take Russian as a separate course.
Whereas Russian speakers are dispersed mostly throughout southeastern Ukraine, ethnic Romanian and Hungarian settlements are concentrated.
Upon graduating, their poor knowledge of Ukrainian doesn’t afford them prospects to enter an institution of higher learning where Ukrainian is the sole language of instruction. Statistics show that nearly half of those who do decide to enroll in a college or university fail. Those applying from Russian-language schools also show below-average scores as compared to their counterparts who graduate from Ukrainian-language schools.
“They [ethnic Hungarians and Romanians] aren’t really integrated in society,” said Oleg Suprunenko, a regional ethnographer and local blogger on the topic based in the district capital of Berehove in Zakarpattia Oblast, where a sizable Hungarian population lives. “They’re not interested in Ukrainian life, television… they rarely venture to other oblasts and, since most have Hungarian passports, they often leave to work or study in the EU.”
If existing policies prevented minorities from “effectively integrating into Ukrainian society and advancing their education and careers,” said Oleksandr Sushko, research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, then the new law gives them a future for living in a homogenous environment while they speak their language at home or in their place of domicile.
“I think this is inclusive and a way of solving this problem [of not integrating] and of uniting Ukraine,” he added. “It provides better conditions for minorities to learn Ukrainian and their own [languages] – I realize they’ve lived this way for more than two decades and it’s an abrupt interruption.”
Experts noted that the law provides for a three-year transition period until 2020 to allow for implementation, like finding Ukrainian-language teachers willing to work in rural villages of Zakarpattia where ethnic Hungarians reside, for example.
“The implementation part will be difficult,” noted Mr. Suprunenko.
Historical aspect not understood
Ukraine has been slow since gaining independence in 1991 in reversing centuries of itsw language being banned or reduced in education, churches, the mass media and in everyday life.
“Language issues are often misunderstood by outside observers of Ukraine,” the Carnegie Europe piece read. “Bilingualism, or the co-existence of both [Ukrainian and Russian] languages, is the norm. In view of this, successive Ukrainian presidents and governments since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 have been prudent to adopt a more incremental approach to ‘Ukrainization.’ ”
Indeed, imperial powers or separate colonizers of Ukrainian ethnic lands banned the use and instruction of the Ukrainian language in all or some its forms.
For example, 70 years of Soviet-era Russification of the greater part of modern-day Ukrainian territory saw the language demoted or relegated to a secondary status, often being equated with “nationalism” and separatism.
Another motive for the new law is that Ukraine wants to prevent further Russian trampling upon Kyiv’s sovereignty and another invasion by a foreign country or proxy forces at the behest of a foreign nation.
When asked about Hungary possibly stoking a separatist revolt in Zakarpattia, Mr. Sushko of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation said it’s “more risky to have the existing status quo of big groups of citizens disconnected from Ukrainian society.”
He continued: “If we stay with the existing system… in the short term, we’ll have separated communities, which is dangerous to overall societal security in the long term…” The correct choice, he said, is one that ultimately results in a “more inclusive” society.