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23 June, 2017  ▪  Roman Malko

Linguistic puzzle

Legislation and bills on the state language: current status and expectations

The attempt to abolish the notorious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law from 2012 was blocked right after the Maidan. The then VR Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, as well as his successors, Volodymyr Groisman and current Speaker Andriy Parubiy did not risk to sign the bill to abolish the Ka-Ka law after it passed the vote in Parliament. The Constitutional Court was supposed to consider the lawfulness of this law but it is delaying the process. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the judge-rapporteur was prepared to report on the case two years ago and signaled this readiness with regular official letters to the CC President. The latter, however, ignored the letters as he was waiting for green light from the Presidential Administration. This course of action is business as usual for the Constitutional Court in Ukraine. 

According to sources at the CC, the verdict it will make on the Ka-Ka law will most likely come from the Presidential Administration, not the court. In terms of the timeframe, this will not happen before it is clear how the Parliament could vote on the newly-sponsored language bills. Until then, nobody wants to create a vacuum in the language legislation as it will inevitably create space for political speculations.

Currently, four new language bills have been submitted to the VR. Three support the Ukrainian language and one supports the Russian language. The latter is presented as the law to ensure state support to the development, promotion and protection of the Russian language and other languages of national minorities in Ukraine. Sponsored by an ex-Party of Regions member and currently Opposition Bloc MP Yevhen Balytskyi, the bill reinforces the position of the Russian language along the lines of the Ka-Ka law. It has barely any chance of passing the legislature – both the sponsor, and those behind him realize this. Its purpose was to provoke yet another intensification of tensions around the language issue.

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In December 2016, bill No 5556 was registered in Parliament, sponsored by Yaroslav Lesiuk, currently MP with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and previously an ideologist of the People’s Movement of Ukraine parliamentary campaign. This bill was supported by thirty MPs from different factions. It defines the Ukrainian language as the only state language in Ukraine and delegates the official status to the Crimean Tatar language as the language of one of Ukraine’s indigenous peoples within the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (in Art. 4.3, The languages of indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine). Also, it entails both administrative and criminal responsibility for the violations of its norms, if passed into law. The bill was submitted in a somewhat provocative manner, as the public working group at the Ministry of Culture led by Professor Volodymyr Vasylenko was working on the new language bill. Lesiuk was included in the group but attended just once. Shortly after, he prepared and filed his own bill unexpectedly. That forced the working group to urgently finalize their bill: it wouldn’t be right to leave just that one bill sponsored by Lesiuk. Moreover, the bill that the public working group was preparing was what its members saw as a novel and logical approach to the language legislation. 

Initially, the working group took as the basis of their bill the Draft Law on the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language and the Procedure for the Use of Other Languages in Ukraine. It was developed by ex-Minister of Justice Serhiy Holovatyi and Samopomich’s Vice Speaker of Parliament Oksana Syroyid in 2013, right after the notorious Ka-Ka law was passed. It’s a reasonable bill that takes account of the experience of many countries with good-quality language legislation, as well as international standards.

It offers the establishment of new institutions that would ensure the implementation of the bill (if passed into law) as a way to boost the development of the Ukrainian language and to prevent the ousting of it from some segments of public life. According to the bill, a commission on the state language would be set up to work on the standards, centralized terminology development and adaptation of new words. Also, it provides for the launch of a testing system like IELTS or TOEFL that would certify the knowledge of the language. Currently, Ukraine has nothing of the sort. The only such document is the school graduation certificate with a grade from the language exam. So, anyone who studies in a different language but has mastered Ukrainian has no way of proving his or her level of knowledge. At the same time, Ukraine has nearly 20 laws that require civil servants and politicians to know the state language.

The bill also introduces the state language ombudsman. He or she would work with complainants regarding the use of the language, provide expertise and recommendations, or apply certain sanctions where public services are not provided in Ukrainian.

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As the working group worked on the document, it realized that the draft had one systemic error: it combined two non-combinable dimensions. When the state language and all other languages in the country are brought together in one document, it results in competition. However, the state language is a sign of sovereignty, just like the state borders, the coat of arms and the anthem. The other languages of people living in Ukraine are in the domain of national minority languages – this is in the human rights domain, not that of sovereignty. The state must guarantee those rights, but based on a different logic: the right of the citizen to preserve his or her language and pass it on to the next generation. Therefore, these two dimensions have to be separated into two different laws, thus removing the competition. A good-quality bill should be drafted to regulate the languages of national minorities and ensure these rights through state guarantees as the state is obliged to do.

The 2013 bill was modified with this approach in mind. In parallel, a bill on national minorities was drafted. The working group was planning to hold discussions and roundtables and work with public opinion through an awareness raising campaign before submitting both bills to Parliament. However, Serhiy Holovatyi prevented this: quite unexpectedly, he filed his original bill (somewhat modified) through MPs Mykhailo Holovko, Maria Matios, Mykola Kniazhytskyi and others. The working group then had nothing else but to register bill No5670 On the State Language which they almost finalized but have not presented to the wider audience.

All this chaos could have been the result of attempts to block the update of the legislation on the protection of the state language. It could have been the influence of human factors, such as personal grudges or ambitions.

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The thoughts on the language bills vary across the Parliament today. Some MPs believe that nothing can be worse than the Ka-Ka law, and so any bill can well be taken as the basic one (except for the one sponsored by Balytskyi). If any of the three is supported in the first reading, it can subsequently be amended. If none gets 226 votes, all will be rejected and the Parliament would not be able to return to them during one year.

It is necessary to have a discussion on what approach would work best. It is necessary to work on this pragmatically and soberly, not through deals and intriguing. The bills available so far offer various concepts and are at different stages of finalization. However, such laws are passed for a long time. The civil society-supported bill No5670 would be the best option in terms of practical implementation. 

Translated by Anna Korbut

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