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The Language Issue in Ukraine, Again

Mykhailo Minakov
The Language Issue in Ukraine, Again

On September 25, 2017, the Ukrainian president signed off on the Law on Educationwhich had been approved by the parliament twenty days before. This law, which had long been anticipated as a means of launching educational reform and somewhat prematurely praised by the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, has caused a scandal because of its clear assimilative policy: secondary education is to be accessible only in Ukrainian, with some options for “indigenous peoples” (Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Gagauz). This critical linguopolitical norm was amended during the approval process in the Verkhovna Rada: from more inclusive approach taken in the draft, the law was changed to require basically monolingual education for all students, despite Ukrainian bilingualism and minority diversity. The veteran politician and governor of Zakarpattya oblast (Transcarpathia) Hennady Moskal has compared this law to the Soviet policies on minorities, which seemed to him to have been more humane and “correct.”

Three and a half years ago, a legislative act of the same kind ginned up the secessionist movement in Ukraine. This time, in addition to adding to the internal cleavages that divide Ukraino- and Russophone populations, the decision has been harshly criticized by the governments of BulgariaGreeceHungaryPolandRomania, and Russia—countries that have large minority populations residing in Ukraine.

To provide Kennan Focus Ukraine readers with more information on the current language issue, we asked experts to comment on the law and its expected impact on Ukrainian society. Here are their responses.

Put differently, the limitations of human rights in the newly adopted Law on Education may or may not act as a trigger for conflict escalation now, but they will obviously create new fracture lines in Ukrainian society while further exacerbating existing tensions.

Tetyana Malyarenko, Visiting Research Fellow, Uppsala Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies (Sweden), Fulbright-Kennan fellow (2013–2014)

Ukraine’s recently passed Law on Education, which limits the cultural rights of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, gave rise to a heated debate within the Ukrainian and international academic and policy communities regarding the legitimacy and consequences of such a legislative act. In examining the immediate and longer-term implications of this law, especially its potential role as a trigger for conflict escalation in Ukraine, the limitation of human rights implied in the law should be analyzed in combination with other causes of conflict and by paying specific attention to the particular context in which the limitation of human rights occurs.

This context, in the case of Ukraine, is shaped by several factors. First, ongoing reforms in Ukraine (in the spheres of education, health care, pensions, and decentralization) have been implemented with a view to “optimization of public expenses.” Thus, what is most important is that the proposed education reforms are likely to further deepen existing socioeconomic inequalities in Ukrainian society, with the most painful consequences, in both the short and the long term, experienced by socially vulnerable groups (the poor, the desperate, the elderly, and women) and in the rural and peripheral territories of the country.

Second, deepening socioeconomic inequality, in the context of an already apparent ethnic dominance policy and the ongoing isolation of minorities under conditions of economic decline and related problems, such as poverty, unemployment, and armed conflict in Donbas, will likely facilitate the articulation of group grievances and thus contribute to the further polarization of attitudes both between different social groups (horizontally) and between elites and society (vertically).

Third, the perennially weak state institutions in Ukraine act as an additional enabling factor in conflict escalation as they create opportunities, even incentives, for local elites to channel public grievances into electoral support (peaceful scenario) or support for a coup d’état (violent scenario). Put differently, the limitations of human rights in the newly adopted Law on Education may or may not act as a trigger for conflict escalation now, but they will obviously create new fracture lines in Ukrainian society while further exacerbating existing tensions.

This long-term cumulative effect of individual policies that foster exclusion rather than inclusion reflects a worrying tendency in Ukrainian politics and society that does not bode well for the democratic development of the country, for its security and stability, or for prospects of sustainable conflict management and settlement.

However, this decision raises new challenges: schools with minority language attendees often lack bilingual teachers, while Hungarian and Romanian communities often lack opportunities for Ukrainian language practice.

Iryna Kogut, Analyst, CEDOS (Kyiv, Ukraine)

Ukraine’s newly approved Law on Education states that children can be taught in their native language in preschool and primary school, while they learn Ukrainian as an additional language. Beginning with lower secondary education, however, Ukrainian replaces minority languages as the main language of instruction, though children from minority groups can continue to learn their native languages and some related cultural subjects.

This decision implies a reduction in the use of minority languages. Still, national minorities could learn their mother tongue until the end of high school. But at the same time, some of them—principally about 16,000 Hungarian-speaking and the same number of Romanian-speaking students—appear to be rather weakly integrated into Ukrainian society. About half the graduates of Hungarian and Romanian schools did not pass the Ukrainian graduation test in 2016. The 300,000 students in Russophone schools also had poor results on the graduation test, and their learning outcomes in other subjects are also lower than the results of students from Ukrainian schools of similar status and location. Children who study in the languages of national minorities have limited educational opportunities in Ukraine (because vocational and higher education is conducted in the national language): they face barriers to holding positions in civil service, fully participating in public life, or working outside a relatively narrow accommodation of the relevant minority.

The idea of reform is to give students time to learn in their native language (in kindergarten and elementary school) and prepare to study in Ukrainian in secondary school. This approach should increase the level of integration while allowing the study of a native language and culture. However, this decision raises new challenges: schools with minority language attendees often lack bilingual teachers, while Hungarian and Romanian communities often lack opportunities for Ukrainian language practice. Therefore, the state should oversee an intensive teacher training program, possibly to include the creation of bilingual textbooks, as well as language camps, school visits, and study visits to children and teachers.

The law will certainly be a point of contention between Ukraine and the EU, not to mention between Russia and Ukraine. 

Oksana Mikheyeva, Professor, Ukrainian Catholic University

For a long time, Ukraine has had to face the consequences of unthought-out policies with respect to the educational system. That the pedagogical professions require the lowest admission grades and are predominantly female professions indicate that this sphere is extremely underfunded and the career prospects of the graduates are poor. Moreover, bribery is rampant in the system of academic degree defense and, combined with the lack of competition in the academic environment, is creating a closed system of inadequacy. The need for reform is urgent.

In the debate that has followed passage of the new law regarding education, I’ve been more concerned about the implementation of the law than about the law itself. Ukraine lacks teachers with the necessary skills to advance such a complex reform. The heated discussion was caused by the language issue, but that is not the root of the problem. One can learn a language and teach others. Creating a teaching community that is prepared to shoulder responsibility for the learning process and its results is far more difficult.

The response to the proposed changes regarding the language of instruction is somewhat exaggerated, in my view. Article 7, on the language of instruction, does not violate Ukraine’s constitution, even though it creates room for discussion of human rights, tolerance, and diversity. The law can be seen as a nontraumatic plan for the integration of minority groups through the primary schools and for further increasing the proportion of classes taught in Ukrainian. In additional, it is expected that minorities will be better integrated into the national context and their career opportunities will expand.

The emotional response to this issue is crowding out the responses to the crucial problems of poor funding for education, the immense bureaucratization of the learning process, the backwardness of educational programs, and neglect of minority rights in other areas. For instance, the program in history remains xenophobic and stigmatizes minorities. The cultural specifics of certain population groups often are not taken into account. For example, different kinds of student competitions are usually held on Saturdays. This creates obvious obstacles to the participation of Jewish children.

The situation with respect to language in Ukraine is complicated. Language often is not regarded as among the crucial identity markers. The goals of this reform, therefore, would be difficult to achieve without a wider social focus on the spread of the Ukrainian language. The request for education in Ukrainian can be energized and incentivized by the prospect of better career opportunities.

Balazs Jarabik, Non-Resident Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Budapest, Hungary)

The new Law on Education is a progressive reform that has been in preparation, with the engagement of local and European experts, for almost two years. Compared to this, the ominous Article 7 of the law regulating the language of education was added a mere thirty minutes before the vote in parliament. The new paragraph is a significant step backward for the rights of national minorities as it introduces Ukrainian as the only language of instruction beginning in the fifth grade of secondary school.

Although the law includes a paragraph on the possibility of teaching one or more items in the language of the European Union, this is vague at best. It excludes Russian, the native language of around 15 percent of Ukrainians (with another 22 percent considering both languages equally to be native). Importantly, there is neither existing capacity nor funding to maintain a high standard of teaching in Ukrainian and in other languages at the same time.

The law will certainly be a point of contention between Ukraine and the EU, not to mention between Russia and Ukraine. However, the law’s passage shows that Kyiv feels confident enough to move against the Russian language, three years after parliament’s cancellation of the existing language law sparked serious protests and was said to be the casus belli for the anti-Maidan resistance.

The move can be explained as the ruling elites in a pre-election mode choosing patriotism and resistance against Russian aggression as key campaign themes. The rush to legislate, however, seems unnecessary. Polls show that around 60 percent of the population prefer to speak Ukrainian in everyday communication, a significantly higher figure than at independence. Language continues to be a sensitive issue in this diverse country, from Bessarabia to Donbas to Zakarpattya oblast, and this step seems unlikely to strengthen the weak legitimacy of the government. Unfortunately, by adopting such an assimilation tactic, Ukraine may come to look like the Soviet Union, the hated predecessor overlord that pursued similar policies against Ukrainian-speakers by forcing the dominance of Russian in Soviet Ukraine’s schools.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more