Undeclared War: Government Conducts “Creeping DeUkrainization”

1 February 2012, 16:00

The Constitutional Court passed a resolution that could result in using the languages of ethnic minorities—read Russian—in courts alongside Ukrainian, essentially meaning that Russian could replace Ukrainian. In November 2011, the Ministry of Education, Science, Youth and Sports drafted a bill to amend the Law On Elementary Education and the Cabinet of Ministers has already submitted the bill to the Verkhovna Rada. It allows authorities to establish new elementary schools or groups within existing schools where children will be taught in “their national language or any other language,” according to the explanatory note for the bill. The Verkhovna Rada previously passed resolutions cutting quotas for Ukrainian-language TV and radio productions, resulting in gradual reduction of such programming, meanwhile Ukrainian songs are predominately only played after midnight. The Ministry of Education and local authorities have encouraged Ukrainian-language schools to become bilingual, as is the case in Odesa. Moreover, Education Minister Tabachnyk would like to make all officials speak both Ukrainian and Russian.

As a result, the sectors where Ukrainian is supposed to enjoy support as the official language, such as courts, civil service, education and mass media, are shrinking. Those claiming that languages, primarily Ukrainian and Russian, should compete under equal market terms are far from objective. Following the Russian language’s soviet-era domination in a number of important spheres, including administration, science, education, mass media and entertainment, Ukrainian has a lot of catching up to do. As a result, use of Ukrainian is an entirely new development in many sectors. For “the competition of media productions in different languages” often supported by advocates of the Russian language to truly be free and fair, Ukrainian needs legislative rather than purely declarative support that would offset its soviet-era status as a second-rate language.

After all, most Ukrainians agree that the Russian language is not in trouble, despite claims to the contrary by Tabachnyk and his ilk. Only 1-3% of those polled think that Russian is in danger; its status ranks among the least of the twenty problems with which Ukrainians are most concerned.

However, in the supposed interest of protecting the rights of the Russian language, the government is now making “facelift” amendments to laws, regulations and court resolutions that didn’t pose a threat to begin with. These measures will serve to restore the Russian language’s dominant position without even amending the Constitution or language laws.


On 13 December, the Constitutional Court approved items 4 and 5 of Article 12 of the Law On the Judiciary and the Status of Judges dated 7 July 2010. According to the two provisions, “…regional languages or languages of ethnic minorities can be used in court under the Law of Ukraine On the Ratification of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages…”

This is not the first law to legally reinforce the status of the Russian language through Charter provisions, yet such citations are inaccurate. Ukraine ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in courts very subtly. According to the Law On the Ratification of the European Charter dated 15 May 2003, Kyiv has undertaken the following commitments: 1) ensure that appeals and evidence submitted to criminal courts in written or oral forms shall not be rejected or deemed unacceptable only because they are filed in regional or minority languages; 2) allow submission of documents and evidence in regional and minority languages to civil courts; and 3) allow submission of documents and evidence in regional and minority languages during proceedings related to administrative issues. Moreover, the government has pledged “not to deem documents drafted inside the country illegal for any party to a legal proceeding only because they are written in regional or minority languages” and to “ensure that the most important national laws and legal documents concerning individuals who use regional and minority languages exist in the respective languages unless otherwise available.”

The “use of regional or minority languages alongside the state official language” is the inaccurate part of the legislation. It may be interpreted too extensively at local levels. Moreover, the Law On the Judiciary and the Status of Judges does not reflect the principle of the “territoriality” of regional languages, as MPs indicated in an appeal to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine.

As often happens in Ukraine, the Constitutional Court’s resolution failed to clarify the situation. Rather, it merely confirmed that the provision regarding the use of regional languages in court proceedings introduced by the law dated 7 July 2010 is constitutional under the Law On the Ratification of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages.

Paradoxically, Ukraine still has not passed a law on the procedure for implementing the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages. This means that linguistic features of the Law On the Judiciary and the Status of Judges as well as other language-related items based on the Charter cannot officially be enforced today. Yet we suspect that despite all this, some officials—including recently appointed judges—will use the charter to replace the official Ukrainian language with Russian arbitrarily in courts. In the meantime, legislation will be adjusted to fit this new custom-made reality.


“I’m a folklore element and I’ve got a document!” Baba Yaga told the Tsar when he tried to kill her for her evil deeds in a satirical play by Leonid Filatov. In this context, however, it quite resembles a quote about bill 9073 on the basics of state language policy sponsored by Vadym Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov, two Party of Regions MPs. In terms of their legislative accuracy, the initiatives proposed in the bill also belong in a satirical piece. According to its sponsors, a language obtains “regional” status provided that at least 10% of a given territory’s population speaks it natively. A requirement this low is rare in Europe, but Kolesnichenko and Kivalov go even further, defining a native language as the first language “an individual learns to speak in early childhood.” Some see this provision as an attempt to preserve the consequences of russification, but it looks more like a provocation against Russian culture. It means that Anton Chekhov was a Ukrainian speaker given his confession to friends Maksim Gorki and Lazarevski, “I spoke Little Russian (Ukrainian) exclusively as a child.” In fact, French should have been Aleksandr Pushkin’s official native language, as he had learned it in his early childhood.

Under bill 9073, local authorities are supposed to decide whether to grant a language official “regional” status. According to their resolution or based on the collection of signatures from the public, a language with less than 10% of native speakers in a given territory can also become an official “regional” one. Although the bill does not specify which councils are authorized to make such decisions, the Explanatory Note accompanying the bill suggests that any council will do. Meanwhile, decisions made by oblast councils are superior to those of county and lower councils—this runs counter to the principles of local self-governance in Ukraine in terms of power distribution among councils. According to estimates by the bill’s sponsors, Russian will become an official “regional” langauge in 13 out of 27 oblasts of Ukraine, including Kyiv. Crimean Tartar language will obtain the status in Crimea, followed by Hungarian in Zakarpattia Oblast and Romanian in Chernivtsi Oblast. The latter is a perfect illustration of how absurd the outcome could be, as civil servants including village mayors in entirely Ukrainian-speaking districts will be forced to learn Romanian.

In essence, the list of spheres specified in the bill where regional languages will be introduced means that most oblasts will be legally bilingual while in fact solely Russian-speaking. The Venice Commission has already criticized bill 9073 as a document that discriminates against the Ukrainian language.

Surprisingly, a thorough analysis of the documents accompanying the bill sponsored by Kolesnichenko and Kivalov reveals financial motivation. “Since the State Budget provides for funding to ensure the development and use of Ukrainian as the official state language, and to enforce the Law of Ukraine On the Ratification of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, the implementation of this bill does not require extra funding,” according to the Explanatory Note. As a reference: the 2011 State Budget allocated 1.1 million Hryvnia to implement the Charter and 3 million for development and use of the Ukrainian language, totaling 4.1 million Hryvnia (US $512,000). Thus, either the Explanatory Note lies or its authors are not qualified to estimate the real cost of bilingualism in 15 counties and having three official languages in Crimea. According to the most modest estimates, enforcement of the bill will cost taxpayers at least 1.3 billion Hryvnia annually (US $162.5 million) as documentation and clerical work switch to a bilingual system, and that’s just the beginning.

No wonder that Party of the Regions MPs have failed to see the political and social impact of the bill if passed—they can hardly even calculate the real cost of its enforcement. This sort of policy could spark unprecedented ethnic tension in Ukraine. Virtually all European states have chosen to give up linguistic and ethnic rivalries on the regional scale in order to preserve ethnic peace. 

Duda Andrii

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