Rejecting the Russian Language is a Blow to Ukraine’s Future/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / Rejecting the Russian Language is a Blow to Ukraine’s Future
Rejecting the Russian Language is a Blow to Ukraine’s Future
Petro Poroshenko signed the law “On Education,” which was ratified by the Ukrainian parliament on 5 September. This reform—which cut back the hours for studying the natural sciences, introduced a 12-year course of study, and reduced the quantity of budgeted positions in institutions of higher education—provoked a response for another reason: its linguistic impact.
This document, which has become an object of international scandal, provides for the total Ukrainization of the teaching process in state institutions of education. According to the ratified law, starting in 2018 children will be able to study academic subjects in their native language only at the beginning stage—up until the fifth grade. Then, for grades five through nine, all schools will gradually introduce subjects in Ukrainian. In the upper classes, absolutely all subjects will be taught in Ukrainian. Beginning in 2020, the entire educational sequence, beginning in kindergarten and ending at university, should fully transition to using Ukrainian.
The earlier law “On Education” indicated that questions about the language of instruction in schools would be regulated by the law “On the Foundations of State Language Policy,” which is still in effect to this day and guaranties minorities the right to receive an education in their native language. No one is upset that this new law enters into contradiction with those already in effect—there are already so many such legal collisions in Ukrainian legislation that the government leadership has stopped paying attention to them.
Unhappy NeighborsThe document provoked a serious scandal at an international level, one that happens to involve countries thought to be allies of Ukraine.
The Hungarians were the first to react. The very next day after ratifying the document, on 6 September, the Hungarian Secretary of State for National Policy, Árpád Janos Potápi announced that the new law impinges on the rights of the 150,000 members of the Hungarian diaspora who are primarily concentrated in Zakarpattia, runs counter to the Ukrainian Constitution, and contradicts prior agreements between the two countries. Potápi expressed his hope that this law will nonetheless not be enacted in Ukraine in its current form. After some time, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Sijjártó was even more categorical: he called the ratified law a “knife in the back” and ordered Hungarian diplomats not to support Ukraine’s initiatives in any international forum. Next came complaints against Ukraine to the General Secretary of the OSCE, the High Commissioner of the UN for Human Rights, and the Special Commission of the EU.
The Hungarian parliament also unanimously condemned the new Ukrainian law. And after the Ukrainian President signed it, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Kiev directly that they could forget their plans to become a member of the EU. Experts have started talking about how Hungary could achieve a suspension of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement whenever they wished. And this is much more substantial than any threat of blocking a mythical Ukrainian membership in the European Union.
It’s wholly possible that Romania will also join in taking revenge on Kiev. Following the lead of its northwestern neighbor, Bucharest took a deep concern in the status of national minorities in Ukraine. On 7 September, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign affairs disseminated a statement accusing Kiev of impinging on the Romanian minority. Then, in the course of a conversation with the Ukrainian ambassador, the Minister for Romanians Abroad Andreea Păstîrnac emphatically recommended that Kiev not deprive the Romanian community of the opportunity to teach their children in their native language.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had made a quite forceful gesture addressed to Kiev: he has completely canceled his planned visit to Ukraine this October. The Romanian president didn’t make any grand declarations, though he discussed the issue of the Romanian minority in detail with Poroshenko at the General Assembly of the UN in New York. The country’s parliament passed a law condemning the resolution. The total population of ethnic Romanians in Ukraine is around 150,000 people, same as the number of Hungarians.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon did not support the new law. He observed that these changes directly affect the Romanian and Moldovan communities in Ukraine and drive them to de-nationalization. The number of ethnic Moldovans in Ukraine is around 260,000, and their close-knit communities are primarily concentrated in the Odessa oblast.
Greece and Bulgaria also condemned the law, even though there are no schools in Ukraine where Greek or Bulgarian is the language of instruction. What’s more, since 2014 the Greek and Bulgarian communities in Ukraine have shrunk significantly. The Greeks, who live predominantly in the Pryazovia part of the Donetsk oblast, started to leave en masse for their historical homeland after the conflict in Donbass began. The Bulgarians too, many of whom lived in the Odessa oblast, have also started leaving Ukraine, though not as actively.
Strangely enough, the most restrained reaction came from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This office for foreign policy promised to “follow intently” how the new law is enacted. In their statement, Polish diplomats also let slip a strange phrase: supposedly, Warsaw was convinced that Ukraine would undertake all necessary measures to assure Polish children could study in Polish.
In its statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs proclaimed that the Ukrainian law “On Education” violated the nation’s Constitution and its international obligations in the humanitarian sphere. The Press Secretary for the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, expressed concern and declared that the Kremlin didn’t find the ratified law “contemporary or successful.” Deputies from the State Duma and Federation Council also came forth with statements condemning the new Ukrainian law. In their statement, the deputies of the State Duma called this law an “act of ethnocide against the Russian people in Ukraine.” The deputies emphasized that the norms of this law trample on the main standards of the UN and the European Council regarding the defense of the linguistic distinctness of indigenous populations and national minorities, enshrined in international treaties ratified by Ukraine.
“This is a serious blow to Ukrainian identity,” says the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Education and Science, Vyacheslav Nikonov. “Because bilingualism has always been a defining characteristic of the Ukrainian nation. After all, it’s no accident that such a major symbol of Ukraine as Taras Shevchenko wrote poems in Ukrainian and his diaries and prose in Russian. Ukrainian heritage consists precisely in this. To deprive Ukrainian citizens of the Russian language is to reject the competitive edge to be gained from knowing a language of global import.” The lawmaker believes that the new law “On Education” is politically dangerous for the Ukrainian leadership, insofar as it strikes the blow to the country’s cohesiveness. “It’s obvious that the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine will defend their right to speak in their native language one way or another,” the politician suggests.
Only the US embassy in Ukraine tweeted congratulations to Kiev on the passage of the educational reform. By the way, this is not surprising—after all, this legislative proposal would scarcely have become law if Washington were against it.
Not Against Hungarians and Romanians
It would be naïve to think that the law signed by Poroshenko was targeted at Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, or Moldovan communities. The overall number of schools conducting classes in the languages of these minorities comprises 1% of the total number of schools, and their members make up an even lower percentage of the Ukrainian population. Their languages are hostages in another, more important battle that has been waged by the Ukrainian government since it acquired independence—the battle against the Russian language.
“Such a law is only one link in a long-standing trend in Ukrainian internal politics that has developed by degrees since the presidency of Kuchma,” comments Sergei Provatorov, a member of the Global Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots from Ukraine. “And there’s no doubt that this won’t be the last normative act aimed at repressing the Russian language and manifestations of Russian culture from all spheres of social and governmental functioning. Along with the prohibition on using the Russian language in record keeping and the introduction of quotas for language use on television and radio, the prohibition of Russian-language teaching is a predictable and “logical” step by the Ukrainian political leadership who had already determined just this course long before taking control of state institutions. And the fact that this new version of the law on education has liquidated the right to an education in one’s native language for children of all national minorities is to a significant degree a casualty of the decisions made against the Russian language. This language is the main point of concentration and transmitter for the entire Russian cultural heritage. Political Ukrainianism is waging its primary battle against this target.”
Beginning in 1991, the number of schools in Ukraine with Russian as the language of instruction has been dropping consistently. In the 2016-2017 school year, the proportion of all schools (private and public) with lessons in Russian was 9.4%, while the Russian and Ukrainian languages maintained parity at the moment when Ukraine acquired independence in 1991: 49.3% of schools used only the Ukrainian language and almost the same number of educational institutions conducted classes in Russian. According to the information of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, during the 2016-2017 school year 581 schools and 364 kindergartens still used only the Russian language. More than 355,000 children study at schools where classes are conducted entirely in Russian. Around 920,000 schoolchildren study the Russian language as an individual subject, 65,000 people attend elective courses and practice circles, around 3,000 study Russian at colleges, and almost 27,000 study at other institutions of higher education.
Even during the Yanukovich presidency, when Dmytro Tabachnik was criticized by the Ukrainian Minister of Education for “favoring Russianness,” the percentage of Russian-language schools kept dropping. Of course, this didn’t happen for the sake of ideology but under the vaunted banner of “optimization”—these institutions simply closed, and the children were transferred to Ukrainian-speaking schools.
“My neighbor comes from Ryazan,” a Russian instructor in a central Ukrainian town tells Russkiy Mir, asking to remain anonymous. “Last year they dropped the class taught in Russian at his granddaughter’s school. All 28 children transferred into a class taught in Ukrainian, despite their parents’ indignation. No one’s listening to anyone—they just present them with the fact that there aren’t any other schools.”
Meanwhile, the demand for Russian-language education greatly exceeds the offerings. According to the 2001 census, 17.2% of the Ukrainian population identified themselves as ethnic Russians—that’s more than 8 million people. Now, that number is lower. (After all, a large portion of the Russian residents in these statistics lived in the Crimea.) However, Russian-language schools aren’t needed only for those Ukrainian citizens who identify as Russian. Now, according to various statistics, Russian remains the native language for 30-40% of the country’s population, which is around 15 million people. Even before this new law, many parents were forced to send their children to private schools due to the lack of Russian-language public schools. Beginning in 2018, these schools will also be Ukrainized.
“It’s clear that Russian always represented for Ukraine the language of culture, the language of industry, and the language of the urban intelligentsia. Of course, teaching students in a non-native language reduces their ability to master the material. This is an axiom. That is, all of this is a blow to the country’s intellectual potential,” says Vyacheslav Nikonov.
And who’s stopping you? Minorities Will Study Your Native Language
In response to criticism of the new law, which, incidentally, Poroshenko signed without waiting for the results of legal experts in the European council, the head of the government assured that “Ukraine had demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate an attitude toward the rights of national minorities that corresponds to our international obligations, harmonizes with European standards, and is an example for neighboring countries.” What does this statement mean?
Most likely, the languages of these national minorities will remain in place as subjects in certain schools, where parents will choose them as an additional foreign language. In accordance with the new law, English will become the primary and required foreign language in schools. And the Russian language, which is native to millions of Ukrainian citizens, will occupy a place of honor alongside German, French, Spanish, Italian, and other foreign languages that are important, but not required.