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10 July, 2019  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Just the first step

The language bill, passed by the Ukrainian parliament in the end of April, has had many important aspects left out. Many of those were important features that would allow this legislation to enable effective Ukrainisation of the public sphere in Ukraine

The aftermath of a drama surrounding the drafting and passing the language bill titled “Implementation of the Ukrainian language as the official state language in Ukraine” brought back the memories of the events seven years ago and only reaffirmed Ukrainian public that political elite lacks strong will, determination, and they are inconsistent in implementing the key legislation required to strengthen the national identity and they are willing to speculate on this topic rather than see its long-term positive effect. 

Seven years ago, in July 2012, when certain political circles pushed hard to introduce the second official language in Ukraine – Russian – and pass the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov’s bill, The Ukrainian Week dedicated one of its most extensive publications titled “The basis of the civilizational choice”. This study proved that continuous efforts to further Russificate the public, social and political space in Ukraine even 20 years after the proclamation of independence is a direct aftermath of the Russian language domination in various social spheres across the country.  Ukrainian language has failed to become to a language of communication between various ethnic groups in the country, and thus unsurprisingly failed to become a basis for nation’s political consolidation. 

Ukrainian lawmakers offered several options for the successful implementation of the language policy in Ukraine, frequently taking into account experience of other post-Soviet countries affected by long period of Russification rooted in historical ties and previous Russian occupation. These measures included education reforms, de-Russification of mass media, cinema and the press. Even 7 years ago The Ukrainian Week was convinced that Ukrainian language has to be the dominant language on all private TV and radio stations, owning at least 80% of the air time and 50% on the printed market. Additionally, all of the newspapers across Ukraine should have a Ukrainian version. This necessary measure would allow overcoming the factor of post-colonial inertia and “imposing consumer demand”, which is subsequently distorting the real demand. 

The fact that most of these points are in one way or another reflected in the language bill proves that The Ukrainian Week’s publication back in the days has not gone unnoticed. At the same time, many essential points were not considered and many were distorted in order to include numerous amendments. Some important issues, which would make this document not only a positive declaration, but also a practical tool of Ukrainisaiton were ignored. Some points we also made vague and unsuitable for Ukrainian realities. 

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Has this been tailored?

For instance, prior to voting on the second draft, the bill included a point, stating that parliament MPs, as well heads of the municipal and district administration had to be fluent in Ukrainian. This was removed. Ironically, this requirement was still kept for municipal MPs and district MPs, even for those of the occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Amendment introduced by Yuriy Rybchynskiy (as well as Vadym Denysenko and Iryna Konstankevych), suggested to add that “salesmen, consultants, managers, employees of the information services and every other employees engaged in the service of clients and consumers on the territory of Ukraine” would be required to be fluent in Ukrainian. The legislation only kept this norm for the public healthcare workers and employees of the public healthcare. This has not been kept, for instance, for the employees of the private medical healthcare. Additionally, important amendments which would make Ukrainian as the only exclusive language of communication among the stuff in the various educational establishments during any working hours were dismissed. 

Another important point regarding movies streamed in the territory of Ukraine was dismissed. Earlier draft included an article saying that “videos distributed in the territory of Ukraine have to provide an audio track in Ukrainian at least two months prior to video’s officially release”. However, the parliament has modified this into a vague and unspecified definition such as “the state is going to provide full assistance to the video and audio providers on the territory of Ukraine in order to facilitate creation of the proper audio tracks or in acquiring legal rights to submit such tracks”.

Additionally, the 50% book quote, which required any book publisher to publish at least 50% of its books throughout the year in Ukrainian, was also dismissed. This requirement was modified in a way that the whole idea of this amendment has been neutralised: “this rule is not applicable for the literature published in Crimean Tatar language, or other languages of ethnic minorities in Ukraine”. 


Dangerous ambiguity – “unless stated otherwise…”

There is a number of contradictions, that have likely been purposely inscribed in the law. These are able to diminish the role and influence of this bill in the future – should one want to do so – and unfortunately in Ukraine anything that is not crystal-clear and straightforward may be interpreted in many possible ways. For instance, article 10 of the bill draft stated that “physical persons and legal entities should only receive replies to their requests in the official state language” was replaced with a vague sentence stating that “inquiries of the physical persons and legal entities to the state, municipal and the authorities of the Crimean Autonomous Republic must be dealt with in the state language, unless otherwise stated in the law”. 

Similar case is with the general public information, such as public announcements, street signs, and other textual and visual information, which, according to the first draft, were supposed to be provided exclusively in the state language. The final version of the draft also includes an alteration saying “unless stated otherwise in the law”. Similar references were also added to the article about public events and public speaking. While the first draft clearly stated that the language of the public events may be solely the state language, the amended version has already had the “unless otherwise stated” included in it. Additionally, the bill has had the “this article is not applicable to small events intended for a limited amount of people” amendment added to it. Thus this loophole allows organisers naming any event “intended for a limited circle” and omitting using Ukrainian language at all. 

The first draft clearly stated that the entire technical and project documentation in Ukraine has to be provided solely in state language, and, if necessary translated into other languages, however, in the amended draft such documentation is required in Ukrainian only in cases if “one of the subjects of contractual agreement are Ukrainian state authorities or Ukrainian state enterprises […]”. In case if one of the subjects of the agreement is a foreign citizen, a stateless person or a legal entity incorporated abroad, the contract may be concluded in the language “according to the contractual conditions or in any other way suitable for the subjects of the contract”. 

The final draft also included a norm, stating that “the working language of various international events, sessions, hearings, conferences is the state language or the language chosen by the organisers or as indicated by the international agreements […] such events hosting foreign citizens or stateless persons should be held in the language acceptable for all participants”. Additionally, final draft dismissed a requirement to provide an obligatory parallel translation of public speeches held by anyone who is not able to express themselves in the state language. The final draft has only kept a statement about the necessity of such translation, without specifying exactly how this translation would be provided, it can, for instance be even interpreted as a written translation provided after the event. 

Therefore, a lot of loopholes or vaguely formulated sentences were included in the final draft, which may potentially limit the usage of Ukrainian as a state language. Many articles of the bill had the “unless otherwise stated in the law” included in it. This may potential undermine this important law as such. 

Last but not least, implementation of many points has been delayed. This includes various social spheres such as Ukrainisaiton of education, dubbing movies into Ukrainian, increasing the amount of Ukrainian content on the TV and radio, published media, updating websites or even software. 


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Weak control 

Those, who are already employed by the various state institutions or government structures, do not need to pass the test to demonstrate their fluency in Ukrainian. 

Additionally, the first draft suggested to include an article to make any effort aimed at recognising other languages as a ‘state language’ or providing them equal legal status with Ukrainian, punishable by law and equal them to anti-state propaganda and actions against the state. These additions, however, were dismissed as well. MPs also did not support heavy fines or arrest for purposeful hate-speech against Ukrainian language or its public mocking. The procedure of imposing the fine is so complicated that it is not even certain whether it will work.

At the same time, interestingly, parliament has backed changes initiated by the close associates of ill-famed Viktor Medvedchuk – Nestor Shufrych and Vasyl Nimchenko – who suggested taking the article 54 out. The article 54 of the language bill stated that that person appointed by the parliament to supervisory language protection has the right to “receive documents or copies [they need in order to carry out their duties], as well other information they need, regardless of how confidential or sensitive is the information, should they request such information from the state authorities, government institutions, municipal organisation as well as other government objects”; those supervisory representatives should also have been granted the right to “freely access local or municipal governmental buildings, establishments, enterprises regardless of their type of ownership”; they should also be able to “request any information they need  from the civic organisations, political parties or legal entities”.

After the initial draft has been amended, it became very difficult to actually bring those responsible for breaking the law to account, especially when it comes to people employed in customer services and trade industry. For instance, if the service provider broke the language law, the person who is appointed to supervise the law execution or its representative issues a warning and demands to improve the shortcomings within the next 30 calendar days. Should they break the law again or fail to comply, the representative will issue the symbolic penalty in the amount of 300 to 400 untaxable minimum incomes.

The country needs something more substantial than the declarative legislation. Declaration itself, however, is in any case an important step forward. Ukraine needs a functioning execution mechanism to implement the state language policies aimed at uniting and consolidating the nation on the language basis. Language, in this case is the basic feature of national identity and a tool to reject postcolonial tendencies. Thus the state needs to make sure that they broaden and increase the usage of the Ukrainian language, transferring it from the formal-ritual language into the full-functioned state language and the language of interethnic communication in Ukraine. This can only be achieved if there is a strict requirement to know and speak this language.  Without these steps nobody will be able to fully self-fulfil in this country and will be doomed to strive being marginalised. Needless to say, there is no need to pay attention to Kremlin’s information wars and their increased efforts to discredit Ukraine’s language policy. These information wars have always been initiated by Russia and will be fought despite of their complete absurdity. 

In order to turn the language policy into a systematic and long-term strategy, instead of a short-term, one time move, Ukraine needs to create a state institution responsible for the control of the bill’s implementation, an institution that will have legal authority and will be able to sanction and bring to account those who break the law. The current legislation is too weak to fulfil these needs, but in the future it may become a strong basis for the revised and improved legislation that will aid in "Ukrainisationing" Ukraine.

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