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One nation? One language?

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One nation? One language?

11.03.2019

Yana Gordienko


The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine* started reviewing the controversial bill “On ensuring functioning of Ukrainian as the state language” in the second reading. Its authors believe that development of Ukrainian language as original language of the titular nation to be the main task in effort to strengthen national identity of the Ukrainians and preserve national culture, traditions, customs, and historical memory of the Ukrainian nation. It sounds nicely, but what's there behind the façade?..

The current process has the following background. A year ago, on February 28th, 2018, the Constitutional Court overturned the Law of Ukraine On fundamentals of the state language policy, known as the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law (adopted in 2012). The latter, presented back then as a victory for the pro-Russian forces, demoted Russian language to the language of national minorities and endowed it with a vague regional status in some areas. The last point provided political fortune solely to "professional Russians" - the authors of this law, but it did not prevent in any way total Ukrainization of education, science, television and radio, as well as Ukrainization of other spheres of life. However, at the same time, nationalists saw it as a threat to the statehood of Ukrainian language.

Consequently, nationally minded lawmakers passed the above-mention bill at the first reading in October 2018. Now they are reviewing it in the second reading, and there is no reason to doubt that it will be adopted, although 2500 amendments have been prepared for it.

What prospects does this law offer to residents of traditionally Russian-speaking regions? Ukrainian language becomes mandatory for representatives of central government bodies, members of parliament, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, notaries, medical professionals, and teachers. All meetings, events and working communication in government agencies within the scope of state and municipal activities shall be conducted in Ukrainian. If an event planner considers it necessary to use any other language, then in accordance with the law he/she will provide a translation into the state language .

Obviously, requirements on Ukrainian language (so-called "Mova"**) stipulated by the bill for the state bodies of "occupied" Crimea look ridiculous, but that cannot be said about other persons named in the list. And if representatives of central government bodies, judges and prosecutors were forcibly transferred to the state language a long time ago, such process has been a clear challenge for medical professionals, teachers and notaries in Russian-speaking regions. And it has been even a greater challenge for their patients, students and visitors. Apart from communication inconveniences, the requirement inherently gives a rise to causes for repression and corruption.

Then there are explanations and clarifications. Education in kindergartens and schools shall be in Ukrainian in all cases; however concurrent education of the indigenous population in languages of national minorities is also allowed. Students in universities shall be taught in Ukrainian, though one of the EU languages is also allowed. Until January 1, 2025, an external independent testing can be taken not only in Ukrainian (this provision does not apply to teachers of foreign languages), but also in the native language, on request. After that , EIT will be possible only in Ukrainian .

Total Ukrainization in scientific realm is planned to be implemented one year after passing the bill, since thesis defense shall be possible only in Ukrainian or English.

Two years later Ukrainian shall be the only language to be heard in cinemas and theaters. Performances and movies in a foreign language should have Ukrainian subtitles, and even in this case the total number of such screenings shall not exceed 10% of total screenings per month in the cinema. Well, you can hardly surprise anyone with Ukrainian subtitles – they have been there for a long time. Actually, they would be a good news - better subtitles than "mova."

"Ukrainian mova or death"

Newspapers and magazines are given 2.5 years to adapt and publish half of their circulation in Ukrainian. Electronic media should switch to Ukrainian within two years. Television and radio broadcasting, as well as speech in a foreign language may not exceed 10% of a daytime broadcast for national channels and 20% for regional and local channels. In fact, the entire broadcast is only Ukrainian since last autumn. Violators have been heavily fined .

Book publishers shall also switch to new language requirements within two years they have to publish at least 50% of books in Ukrainian language. At least half of the products in bookstores shall be in Ukrainian. Ukrainian typography is still somehow kept afloat only by products in Russian. When above requirements are implemented, it will vanish.

The entire service sector is obliged to switch to the Ukrainian language within one and a half years. Menus, instructions, labels shall be translated into it. Although the latter can be found only in Ukrainian. In some cases there may be a translation into Russian, but those cases are rare. And as to provision of services... I wonder: where they will find such a number of personnel able to communicate freely in Mova*? Well, there are obviously vast possibilities for blackmailing by inspectors, not to mention new methods of competition.

Six months after the adoption of the law, all advertising in the country shall be published in Ukrainian or in a language of the EU countries. Such a rule has existed for a long time. To be honest, it will be fun to see ads in a language of the EU countries ...


Now, one year after the law was passed, all documents in medical institutions are translated into Ukrainian. You can only feel sorry for doctors and patients, especially considering the acute shortage of medical workers. Obviously, chief doctors will face a dilemma: to comply with this law or to treat people. Their decision is anybody’s guess.


And a new position is being introduced - a language ombudsman to replace so widely criticized and thus formally called off language inspectors. However, in reality, such an ombudsman retains all the privileges of the Sprechenführer; in particular he/she may request documents or their copies and other information, including those with limited access, freely visit authorities, any enterprises and institutions, attend their meetings, obtain documents or their copies and any other information from any enterprise, regardless of form of incorporation, government agencies, political parties, and legal entities.

The bill stipulates a system of fines. We have no comment on it. Just for the record: actual salary in Ukraine is about 4,000 hrn. If during working hours a public servant and politician expresses his/her thoughts not in the state language, he/she will be slapped with a fine of 3,400 to 6,800 hrn. The same violation by teachers, doctors, athletes or artists will result in a fine of 3,400 to 5,100 hrn. Print media will be punished with a fine of 6,800 to 8,500 hrn. if a publication is printed without circulation in Ukrainian.

But punitive measures of the language law are not limited to fines: an attempt to introduce bilingualism or multilingualism throughout Ukraine or in any one region shall be punished with a prison term of up to 10 years.

Ukrainian Constitution

Well, here is the cherry on top: despite the declared development of Ukrainian language, there are no actual measures stipulated for it in the bill; there are only oppressive measures against Russian language, although it is not mentioned at all.


Formally, and from a legal point of view, any clause of this law violates the Constitution, Article 10 of which guarantees free development, use and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, as well as international treaties.


Why have they started reviewing this ambiguous, to put it mildly, bill right now - a month before the presidential election? The answer is in the question itself: absolutely all candidates have already commenced their self-promoting campaigns based on the bill irrespective of whether they support it or not.

At the same time, what could be more effective than a language issue to distract a voter from scandals constantly shaking the Kiev regime? Examples of those are asset misappropriation in Ukroboronprom or continuous and steady wealth accumulation by the current president at the time of epidemic poverty of the population.

And the last, perhaps the saddest thing: there are neither political nor social forces in Ukraine, capable to defend position of Russian language in any realistic terms, unlike the Hungarian, Polish or Romanian language communities. And this fact can bring the Russian-speaking population to absolute hopelessness.

* The Parliament of Ukraine
** Language

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