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30 April, 2014

Take the time to elaborate legislation on languages

Astrid Thors, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, on Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians as national minorities in the annexed Crimea, and necessary changes in legislation.

U.W. What is the strategy of OSCE for working with the minority of Crimean Tatars in Crimea?

It is difficult to talk about the strategy when everybody has been overtaken by the events.  As the High Commissioner on National Minorities, our office is trying to follow the situation and to see if we hear concerns that we can address and make other authorities aware of these problems. But mainly, of course, the question is for the Crimean Tatars. They have the representative body - Mejlis and we are listening carefully to their suggestions. Participation rate in the elections to the Mejlis is unexceptionally high, which signals that it is indeed a representative body.

U.W. Do you have observers in Crimea now? How do you tackle the situation there?

There are no observers there at the moment from my organization. We have been able to stay in touch with people who know the situation and the position of the Mejlis.

U.W. You said that you met with Mustafa Dzhemilev. Do you stay in touch with him or anybody else from Mejlis?

I have met with him some weeks ago here in Kyiv and we are trying to stay in touch with him and his adviser.

U.W. Do you perceive ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea as a national minority in the current situation?

The definition must come from themselves. We have similar situations in autonomous territories, where groups in majority in the rest of the country are in minority in the autonomy and merit special attention inside it. The Ukrainian speakers in Crimea are a group with different linguistic needs and therefore we have started to pay more attention to them. I have heard, for instance, that the situation with their schools needs to be followed closely to see how many Ukrainian schools there are in Crimea in the future.

U.W. Could you describe the problems national minorities faced in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh? Are they comparable to the ones people in Crimea face now? Are you prepared to deal with such problems in Crimea?

I do not recall any activities in Nagorno-Karabakh. As to Abkhazia, my Institution is trying to highlight the educational needs and the need for people to move freely over the administration border line, among other issues. My predecessor made important statements of concern when the movement of people across the border was made more difficult in South Ossetia. These are some typical issues that took place previously and we looked at those, including the issues of citizenship and passports.

U.W. Do you see any similarities with the situation in Crimea?

In a certain way it is different from this. Legally the situation is even more challenging in Crimea as it has now entered a new framework. There certainly is a need to see how the rights of minorities are respected, including  educational needs. We can draw some experience from our previous cases, but each situation is unique.

U.W. Do you see any problems with the rights of minorities in Eastern Ukraine?

As I have said, nothing has changed legally. The so called Language Law is still in place. The situation has not aggravated for the Russian language in the recent months. Neither have there been improvements. 

Then we have a law on minorities, which does not any more reflect reality – the structure for minority participation and representation is not as is described in the law. This difference between law and reality has been the case for years and minority groups, like Hungarians, Greeks etc. have been asking for new structures to be put in place. The government has decided to start working to establish new structures.

In Eastern Ukraine, we are unfortunately now facing more a situation where people have an impression that their voices are not taken into account. And that is more of a political, societal question.

U.W. There are Russian-speaking people in the East who are the majority and ethnic Russians who are the minority there. How do you distinguish those definitions and whom do you perceive as a minority there? Could you clarify this issue?

It’s a very good question, because I think it’s very important how the groups call themselves. This is the first thing, and we have the situation when de facto minorities talk about themselves as communities instead of minorities. . But I also want to make a clear distinction which I see - you have the Russian speaking Ukrainians and  you have the Russian minority.  I really hope that people will not look at the issue as a very ethnical one. It is also a question of respect for the language of each other which is something very essential.

U.W. What should be improved with minority rights in the current situation in Ukraine?

Take the time to elaborate legislation on languages to see what the needs are, also of the several smaller minorities in all parts of  Ukraine. Do not tackle with those issues hastily. In the long run, I think it’s very important to have a clear legal framework that sets out the rights especially for minority participation and education.

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