Tuesday, February 7
Укр Eng
Log In Register
21 January, 2011

Every Ukrainian to Start Speaking All Languages?

The OSCE is convinced that the purpose of the draft law on languages has nothing to do with linguistic liberalism and the protection of minority rights. It is aimed at establishing Russian as the de-facto state language

In the history of the OSCE there was no precedent, until recently, when the government of a member state undermined from the inside the status and development of the state language through its loyal mouthpieces. Knut Vollebæk, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, sent a letter, dated 20 December 2010, to Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn in which he straightforwardly says that it is simply a unique case when the state language is essentially left to the mercy of fate through deregulation of its use and another, unofficial language is promoted. This is a direct path to the disintegration of the entire country. In his letter, Mr. Vollebæk sets forth the results of his analysis of bill No. 1015-3 “On languages in Ukraine.” Mr. Lytvyn was supposed to pass it on to the MPs, but he seems to be in no hurry to do this. In what follows, The Ukrainian Week offers selected comments of Mr. Vollebæk regarding the norms contained in the bill.


Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

“A regional linguistic group is a group of people residing in a certain region (population center) who use primarily one and the same language.” (Article 1)

“To each language … measures shall be applied that shall be aimed at using regional languages or minority languages under this Law, provided that the number of speakers of a regional language residing in the territory of its prevalence is 10 or more percent of the total population of this territory.” (Part 3, Article 8)


The bill offers an approach on which the main criterion is the “use” of a language rather than a choice of a language. In regions dominated by a certain — state or minority — language, the use of this language will not necessarily coincide with the individual linguistic choice, because an individual will most likely be forced, for social and economic reasons, to use the dominant language. This criterion will damage the interests of, above all, speakers of smaller minority languages. It should be noted that updated statistics regarding the linguistic preferences of Ukrainian citizens simply does not exist. Meanwhile, these data are an indispensable condition for the application of the norms contained in the bill, in particular the norms in Part 3 of Article 8. Therefore, the only legitimate source of relevant information is the 2001 census, in particular the part about the respondents’ native language (67.5% Ukrainian and 29.6% Russian).

Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

Ukraine’s state linguistic policy shall be based on the recognition and comprehensive development of the Ukrainian language as the state language, while guaranteeing free development of Russian and other regional and minority languages…” (Part 1, Article 5)

“The following languages shall belong to the regional languages of Ukraine to which measures shall be applied that shall be aimed at using regional languages under this Law: Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Gagauz, Yiddish, Crimean Tatar, Moldavian, German, Modern Greek, Polish, Romani, Romanian, Slovak, and Hungarian.” (Part 2, Article 8)


Even though the bill formally speaks about attention to and support of not only Russian but also “other regional and minority languages,” the rest of the text focuses nearly exclusively on the protection and support of no other language than Russian and does not offer adequate support to smaller regional languages. This approach distorts the object and objective of international legal mechanisms to protect human and minority rights. Its main instruments of protection pertain only to the languages that will achieve the status of regional languages omitting those that will not claim this status. The bill does not regulate how the status of a regional language will correlate with various administrative-territorial units — oblasts, raions, cities, and villages.


Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

“Television and radio broadcasting organizations of Ukraine can, at their discretion, broadcast in the state language, Russian, other regional languages, languages of international communication, and other languages, choosing one or multiple languages. For the state-owned national television and radio broadcasting organizations the minimum quota of state-language broadcasts is 60% and Russian-language broadcasts 20% of the entire volume of daily broadcasts.” (Part 3, Article 25) “The language of the printed mass media shall be determined by their founders and fixed in their constitutional documents” (Part 6, Article 25). Part 4 of Article 25 also removes any requirements set to the language of audio and visual works, including advertisement.

The nearly complete deregulation and removal of restrictions that guaranteed the use of the state language on television and in the press, especially in the private sector, may seriously affect the standing of the Ukrainian language. Market demands and  asymmetric bilingualism in Ukraine will facilitate the import and production of Russian-language programs, films and publications. The introduction of such deregulation is a unique case in the history of the OSCE. All its member states try, on the contrary, to legislatively fix the presence of the state language in the media, especially on television.

Additional remarks and conclusion

Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

“No regulation contained in this Law about measures to develop, use and protect regional and minority languages shall be interpreted as such that creates obstacles to mastering the state language.” (Part 9, Article 8)


The approach and content of the bill may, unfortunately, greatly discourage interest in the state language and reduce opportunities for its study in a larger part of Ukraine, which will only precipitate the existing linguistic divisions. Instead of “strengthening the unity of the Ukrainian society” (Article 2), this law may lead to the exact opposite. The law does not contain guarantees protection to the linguistic rights of citizens who wish to use Ukrainian in regions where a regional language dominates — it is a minority inside another minority which on a national level is, however, a majority. Nor does the bill regulate in any way the issue of financing the measures it foresees.


Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

“Legislative acts shall be adopted and published by local government and self-government bodies in the state language. Within the limits of territories in which a regional language prevails ... acts ... shall be adopted in the state language or this regional language and officially published in both languages with both texts having equal legal force” (Part 2, Article 11). A regional language will be used, under this Law, on an equal basis with the state language also at work, in the paperwork and documentation of local government and self-government bodies (Part 1, Article 12), as well as during elections and referendums (Article 13). Court proceedings may also be carried out in a regional language on the request of a party in the trial (Part 1, Article 15).


An analysis of the linguistic and geographical situation in Ukraine and the structure of its population affords a realization that Russian as a language used by 10 or more percent of the population in a certain oblast will be used on an equal basis with the state language in the majority of oblasts in Ukraine. In practice, the other minority languages will fall out of the scope of this law altogether. Therefore, this law will achieve one undeniable goal — the use of Russian on a par with the state language in a larger part of Ukraine. Nor does the bill contain any regulation that would require government officials to have proficiency in the state language of Ukraine.


Bill “On Languages in Ukraine

“Citizens of Ukraine shall have a guaranteed right to obtain education in the state language and Russian language...” (regional languages are also added to the list) (Part 2, Article 21). “The need of citizens in a particular language of instruction shall be determined in a mandatory manner based on requests for a language of instruction submitted by school students (in the case of minors, by parents....) and students during entry in state-owned and community education institutions.” (Part 3, Article 21). “State and community education institutions shall form, following an established procedure, separate classes or groups with a different language of instruction than that used by the education institution in general, provided that there is a sufficient number of relevant requests...” (Part 4, Article 21).


The education reforms proposed in the bill contradicts earlier recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities who suggested that an education system has to secure a balance between the goal of preserving and developing minority identities and languages and their integration in the society in which they live. The bill will facilitate the formation of a monolingual education system in schools where representatives of minorities will study, which would deny them an opportunity to achieve a sufficient level of proficiency in the state language. Classes in the Ukrainian language and literature alone cannot be considered sufficient foundation for mastering the state language at a high level.

OSCE clarification of the goals of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

“Any weakening of the state or official language(s) contradicts the spirit of the Charter. The protection and support of regional and minority languages should not come at the expense of the state or official language(s).”

Related publications:

Copyright © Ukrainian Week LLC. All rights reserved.
Reprint or other commercial use of the site materials is allowed only with the editorial board permission.
Legal disclaimer Accessibility Privacy policy Terms of use Contact us