Speaking up for Your Mother Tongue

15 June 2012, 13:02

According to law, the language used by employees in government institutions, stores, coffee shops, etc. has to be Ukrainian or some other language acceptable to both sides (see Expert evaluation). “This means Ukrainian by default. And only if the client suddenly decides that he should be addressed in a different language – and if it is an acceptable option, say, for waiters – he can receive services in a foreign language,” Yuriy Fartushny, lawyer for the Don’t Be Indifferent! movement, explains. He says that it is sometimes enough to simply ask the other person to switch to Ukrainian and thus assure your language rights are respected.


A reporter of The Ukrainian Week asked five police officers in Kyiv for directions in Ukrainian and heard back in the same language from two of them. Salespeople in randomly selected shops were not very disappointing, either. In contrast, eateries that have only Russian-language menus are on every corner in Kyiv, such as the Parasol café on Pestel Str. However, a waitress there easily switched to Ukrainian. When asked to bring a menu in Ukrainian, she apologised and explained that they do not have any and offered her services as an interpreter.

Volunteers of the Don’t Be Indifferent! movement have collected many such stories. The movement has successfully monitored cafés, bars and restaurants for the past two years to see if they keep the law on languages. Hanna, a student volunteers, returned to the Turgenef restaurant where language rights were earlier violated, as the movement found indicated in the customer feedback book. The administration had ignored the complaint and the restaurant’s menu is still in Russian. They promised to introduce a Ukrainian-language one after Euro 2012, saying that a number of foreigners are going to come for the championship who “don’t understand it.” The staff has yet to learn to speak Ukrainian.

In contrast, the menu in the Fried Potatoes bistro is in Ukrainian, and the staff welcomes clients also in Ukrainian. At the same time, a weird mixture of languages is used in its bills. But they contain the name and surname of the person who served the client, so the latter can easily identify a staff member if he decides to complain. If the staff refuses to speak to you in Ukrainian and requests have no effect, there are other ways of putting on pressure.

“You can simply talk to the owner of the café in question,” Fartushny continues. “About 60 per cent of eateries change the situation partly or completely after our volunteer visits them or makes an entry in their customer feedback book. After all, there is protection of consumer rights. And there will be a reaction from relevant government bodies.” There is also the option of going to court…

The Don’t Be Indifferent movement inspected and monitored over 200 restaurants, and the results show language legislation violations in 72 per cent of cases in 2010 and 64 per cent in 2011. In other words, the situation improved by 8 per cent.


Ukrainian-speaking citizens often face linguistic discrimination. Many of them defend their rights on their own. Anatoliy Ilchenko, an elderly man from Mykolaiv, won a number of lawsuits against local officials who refused to speak Ukrainian to him. They had to pay large fines. However, sometimes judges ruled in their favour on absurd arguments, such as “Russian has a ‘special status’” or “it does not belong in the same company as other languages”. Ilchenko tells about one such case: “The city council held a mass event towards Mykolaiv Liberation Day. Everything was in Russian there. I sued them, asking to refrain from speaking in public in a foreign language without interpreting so that I could understand what officials say. Judge Spinchevska turned down my lawsuit, because ‘there is no direct prohibition in legislation to use other languages’. But no such prohibition is needed, because Ukrainian is the working language of the central government and local governments.”

He says it is quite difficult to fight for citizen rights in Mykolaiv: “Ukrainians have forgotten that they are Ukrainians. We do not respect ourselves, so who will respect us?” He recommends those who face linguistic discrimination to “at least file a complaint to a prosecutor’s office.”

Odesa-based journalist Vira Hruzova was told to go to “her Ukrainian-speaking Lviv” and heard other offensive language from another Odesa resident, blogger Vsevolod Nepohodin. But she believes that it is not that difficult to be a speaker of Ukrainian in this city where even the municipal authorities use only Russian. The problem is, she says, that “not every person you come across here is tolerant to language.”

“Citizens outraged by the fact that officials in the city council speak to them exclusively in Russian come to my office fairly often,” says Odesa-based human rights activist Oleksandr Slavsky. “They also take exception to the fact that government officials react in a bad way to the state language or speak disparagingly about it.”

“Teachers often teach in Russian but note: If the head of the department comes, we will continue in Ukrainian,” Hanna, a student at the Philological Faculty in Illia Mechnikov Odesa National University, says. “In other words, they understand that they are supposed to deliver lectures in the state language but are not doing it. Their language sometimes sounds funny – we even prompt them. Sometimes they ask us ourselves: Now what’s this word?” Hanna says that two teachers, Halyna Yarotska and Tetiana Ponomarenko, teach in Russian as a matter of principle.

“You need to submit a written complaint to the rector’s office of the education institution and request that classes be taught in Ukrainian,” attorney Antonina Krushynska recommends. “If there is no reaction, you need to write to a directorate of the Ministry of Education and say something to this effect: Classes are being taught in Russian at our faculty, which contradicts Article 10 of the Constitution. Please take measures in order to influence the administration.” Liudmyla Klochko of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group says a written complaint should also be filed to the prosecutor’s office in such cases.

Stories about job applicants being rejected for speaking Ukrainian rarely become public knowledge. Probably the only high-profile exceptions are the cases of Olena Voronova, Yulia Skoroda and Dina Antoshchenko. However, there are many more such stories. Olha, who lives in Kyiv, tells hers: “An HR woman in one company talked to me exclusively in Russian and explained that this is the language to be used in their company because its bosses are in Moscow. I asked her whether there was anyone from Moscow in their Kyiv office. No, she said. Then I emphasised that I would speak Russian with bosses from Moscow, English with English customers and Ukrainian with Ukrainians in the Kyiv office.” She did not get the job.

If you have problems with job placement because you speak Ukrainian, a lawsuit is a feasible option. “This can be a civil case,” Klochko explains. “But I have to note that every person who files a lawsuit must also provide evidence. You need to make an audio or video recording of you being rejected precisely because of the language you speak. Alternatively, you need to find witnesses who will be willing to come to the court hearing.” More likely than not, an employer sued this way will have to revise its position and also pay you damages.

However, the linguistic problem in the corporate sector is, in fact, local. Many recruiting agencies note that most employers tolerate Ukrainian and there is an increasing number of job descriptions that indicate: “Fluency in Ukrainian is a plus.”


Ukraine has sufficient legislation to enable an ordinary Ukrainian to defend his linguistic rights if need be. A Constitutional Court of Ukraine decision of 14 December 1999 says that Ukrainian as the state language is a mandatory means of communication across the territory of the country for government bodies and local self-government bodies in performing their functions, as well as in other public spheres of social life established by law. The services sector is one such public spheres and is governed by the laws “On the Protection of Consumer Rights” and “On Languages in the Ukrainian SSR” and other regulations. Under Article 17 of the Law “On Languages in the Ukrainian SSR”, Ukrainian or another language acceptable to both sides is used in all areas in which services are offered to citizens.

In other words, under the law, employees in the services sector must use Ukrainian in talking to customers. When meeting and communicating with clients, they must welcome them, offer dishes and menus, etc. in Ukrainian, and switch to a foreign language only upon request. But in this case they are not obliged to switch to a foreign language. They have the right to do so and may use it if doing so is acceptable to them.

Moreover, under the Law “On the Protection of Consumer Rights”, when a client purchases, orders or uses products sold in the territory of Ukraine to meet his personal needs, he has the right to adequate quality. Services have adequate quality if they meet the demands contained in legal regulations. Services that violate effective laws cannot meet quality standards.

Under the same law, consumers have the right to receive necessary, accessible, truthful and timely information about products that will enable them to make informed and competent choices. This information must be provided to the consumer before he purchases a product or orders a service. It should be done according to the law on languages, i.e., in Ukrainian. In this way, the law establishes that a client in a restaurant must be welcomed in Ukrainian, attended to in Ukrainian and receive a Ukrainian-language menu and bill.

If the above requirements are not met, the customer can make an entry to this effect in the customer feedback book and request that violations be eliminated. The administration of the institution then must look into the issue and take the necessary steps to remove violations. If this does not happen, the Directorate for Consumer Right Protection is the agency to turn to. Similar legal argumentation concerning the use of Ukrainian and the order of steps taken in cases when linguistic rights are violated can also be employed in other areas of social life.

Yuriy Fartushny, lawyer of the Don’t Be Indifferent civic movement

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