November 30, 2017
Guest post by Mark Temnycky, graduate of Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University
As Ukraine celebrated its “Ukrainian Literacy and Language Day” on 9 November, controversy surrounding its education law remains.
Passed in September, the legislation stated secondary education in public schools would be taught in Ukrainian. This sparked outrage from the ethnic Russian community in eastern Ukraine, who represent nearly one-fifth of the Ukrainian populace, and the minority groups in Transcarpathia, such as the Hungarians and Romanians, who account for 0.6% of Ukraine’s population.
Ukraine’s education law also received backlash from the international community, most notably from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
PACE criticized the legislation, stating it did not create an appropriate balance between the Ukrainian and minority languages. The Assembly then offered a series of recommendations on how to amend the law, and a second review will be conducted at the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on 24 November. The Ukrainian law on education has also been sent to the Venice Commission for further assessments.
Hungarian and Romanian officials voiced their concerns as well, arguing the law would not allow minority groups to practice their languages in Ukraine. In retaliation, Hungary threatened to block any future Ukrainian advancements toward EU membership while Romanian President Klaus Iohannis cancelled his trip to Ukraine.
Ukrainian Education and Science Minister Liliya Hrynevych has disputed these claims, stating Ukraine’s education law was not created to persecute minority groups. Rather, the law was designed to bring the Ukrainian education system closer to EU standards.
Given this controversy, why does Ukraine continue to pursue this policy? Perhaps this can be explained by its tragic history. For generations, those who ruled Ukraine tried to impose their languages upon the Ukrainian people. For example, both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union forced their subjects to learn and speak Russian, and those who did not comply were persecuted. Despite their efforts, the Ukrainian language survived.
To this day, the Ukrainian language holds a high standard in Ukraine. According to a recent survey conducted by the Gorshenin Institute, in cooperation with the Friedric Ebert Foundation, 92% of citizens in Ukraine identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians, indicating that a common language plays a large role in Ukrainian society. This, however, does not mean minority groups cannot practice their own languages.
For example, Ukrainians who emigrated to the United States and Canada were forced to learn English, yet this did not prevent them from maintaining their heritage. During the 1950s, the Lesia Ukrainka School of Ukrainian Studies, also known as Ridna Shkola, was founded. These Ukrainian language schools, located throughout North America, taught Americans and Canadians of Ukrainian descent about the history, culture, literature and geography of Ukraine.
Other diaspora groups in the United States and Canada, such as the Poles and Italians, have similar programs.
Ukrainian academic institutions have also adopted this approach, as Ukraine’s secondary schools offer courses taught in minority languages, thus meeting the desires and needs of diaspora groups within Ukraine.
The same, however, cannot be said for Hungary or Romania. According to current census reports, Ukrainians make up 0.1% of Hungary’s population while 0.3% of Ukrainians reside in Romania, yet Ukrainian language institutions do not exist in these countries. Moreover, schools in Hungary and Romania are taught in Hungarian and Romanian, and although their institutions provide courses in a variety of languages, they are not offered in Ukrainian.
Therefore, it appears Ukraine has accommodated minority groups much better than its neighbors suggest. Nonetheless, as it continues to meet the standards set by the European Union, Ukraine should tread lightly on this issue. Otherwise, if this matter is not resolved, the possibility of joining the EU may come under threat.
Mark Temnycky is a Ukrainian-American who earned a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He has been previously published by The Ukrainian Weekly, EUobserver and Forbes.