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Council Of Europe's Experts Criticize Ukrainian Language Laws

Ukrainians in Kyiv mark the enactment of the State Language Law in July 2019.
Ukrainians in Kyiv mark the enactment of the State Language Law in July 2019.

The Council of Europe’s constitutional experts have criticized controversial language legislation adopted in Ukraine earlier this year and previous regulations regarding educational institutions signed into law by the country's previous president, Petro Poroshenko.

The so-called Venice Commission on December 6 said it specifically took issue with what it sees as an extremely short transition period for the converting of Russian-language schools into Ukrainian-language institutions.

The commission also said it considers quotas for minority languages in radio and TV programs to be unbalanced.

"To avoid the language issue becoming a source of inter-ethnic tensions within Ukraine, it is of crucial importance to achieve an appropriate balance in its language policy," the commission said. "The authorities have so far failed to do so."

The State Language Law, which went into effect on July 16, declares that Ukrainian is "the only official state language" in the country.

It adds that "attempts" to introduce other languages as the state language would be considered an effort to "forcibly change the constitutional order."

Poroshenko signed the bill into law days before he left office following his electoral defeat to rival Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Previous legislation, signed by Poroshenko in September 2017, made Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade on. The bill did not outlaw instruction in other languages, allowing students to learn their native languages as a separate subject.

Tensions with Russia remain high in the former Soviet state following Moscow's seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Some native Russian speakers in Ukraine claim Kyiv is deliberately curtailing the use of the Russian language. The Kremlin has also assailed the language laws.

Ukrainian speakers argue that the prominence of Russia is a legacy of the Soviet era that undermines Ukraine's identity and cite efforts to suppress the Ukrainian language during communist times.

Ukrainian is the native language of some 67 percent of Ukraine's almost 45 million population, while Russian is the native language of almost 30 percent. Russian is spoken mostly in urban areas. Almost 3 percent of Ukraine's inhabitants are native speakers of other languages.

The Venice Commission noted that the transitional period for the implementation of an education law has been extended from September 1, 2020, to September 1, 2023, "but only for students whose native language is an EU language, and not for those with other native languages, including Russian."

"In view of the particular place of the Russian language in Ukraine, as well as the oppression of the Ukrainian language in the past, the Venice Commission fully understands the need to promote the use of Ukrainian as the state language," it said.

“It is, therefore, commendable that the State Language Law provides for positive measures to this end by obliging the state to provide each citizen of Ukraine with an opportunity to master the language through the educational system, to organize free language courses, and to promote access to films and other cultural products in Ukrainian."

However, it stated the need for "balance" and urged Ukraine to consider postponing implementation of State Language Law provisions already in effect until a Minorities Law can be enacted to protect other languages.

Separately, Hungary's foreign minister on December 4 said Budapest would block Ukraine's membership in NATO until Kyiv restored the rights that ethnic Hungarians had before the September 2017 language law went into effect.

Ukraine, under Zelenskiy, has vowed to continue "wide-ranging reforms” that are anchored in European democracies, including the "respect for minority rights."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, dpa, and TASS

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