news letterOur mobile application

Weekly newsletter

Ukrainian Parliament Passes Language Law, Angering Minorities

Ábrahám Vass 2019.04.26.

Yesterday Ukraine’s parliament approved a controversial law that makes the Ukrainian language compulsory for the public sector. As a result, minority languages can only be spoken at home or during religious events.

Backers of the law claim it would strengthen Ukraine’s national identity and language, something the country – which finds itself in a delicate position as a result of an increasing pressure from Russia – could possibly benefit from. Hungarian organizations, and those of other minorities, have protested against the legislation by saying it eliminates the right minorities have to speak their own languages.

According to Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, the law is “unacceptable.” He expressed hope that the situation concerning the rights of the Hungarian community in Ukraine could be “clarified in a dialogue with the country’s new president (…) in pursuit of finding a solution to the issue.”

In addition, as Index noted, the law’s text states that the languages of Crimean Tatars and other indigenous peoples – potentially including Hungarian – will be covered by an amendment. It is expected to be presented within half a year by a new parliament as President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party is not yet present in the Parliament due to the particularities of the Ukrainian electoral system. However, the party will likely have a majority after the October elections.

As a native Russian speaker, Zelensky’s stance is of great interest to many. However, for now it remains unclear how he feels about the language law. Nevertheless, he does appear to be less of a nationalist than the current president, Petro Poroshenko. According to karpatalja.ma, he said on Thursday that when sworn in he plans to carefully analyze “this law to ensure that it respects the constitutional rights and interests of all the citizens of Ukraine.”

For now, the law is yet to be signed by outgoing President Poroshenko, but given his previous statements, it is highly likely he will sign it before handing over the presidency.

Németh: Ukraine Election Confirms Country Needs Change

The law has generated tension not only between the two countries but also in diplomacy. For example, Hungarian diplomats blocked discussions between Ukraine and NATO. This led to criticism from the US: At a conference organized by the conservative Danube Institute yesterday, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker insisted that “the issue of national minority languages is important and needs to be resolved between Hungary and Ukraine, but it doesn’t provide justification for blocking NATO discussions.” Founding member of Fidesz and Chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Zsolt Németh retorted by declaring easing up out of the question for the time being. In the same vein, Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ) leader László Brenzovics warned the US “not to confuse Westernism with Ukrainian nationalism oppressing minorities.”

featured image: Transcarpathian Hungarian kids (illustration); via MTI/János Nemes