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Will Ukraine’s Attitude Towards Its Ethnic Minorities Change?

Dénes Sályi 2019.04.30.

The Ukrainian National Assembly has passed a much-debated language law meant to safeguard the primacy of the Ukrainian language. The law severely discriminates against ethnic minorities, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and Poles living in the Eastern European country with a population of 42 million.

Apart from private communication and church services, the new legislation will require the use of Ukrainian in nearly all aspects of public life. This includes education, which means that children belonging to ethnic minorities will only be permitted to learn in their native language for their first four classes. Petro Poroshenko, the outgoing president, has made it clear he plans to sign the law. At the same time, the comedian turned newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, doesn’t support the legislation in its present form and wants to modify it in order to alleviate tension between Ukraine and neighboring countries.

One hundred and fifty thousand Hungarians are currently living as Ukrainian citizens along the Hungarian border in Transcarpathia. There has yet to be a positive shift for the historically ill-fated Hungarian minority which has been forced to ’change countries’ four times within 70 years. There have been little to no improvements in recent years despite the fact that Ukraine nurtures good relations with the European Union and would like to join it.

The EU regularly calls its members and partner states to account concerning the proper functioning of the constitutional state. However, Brussels is a lot more lenient towards Ukraine, primarily because of the country’s delicate geopolitical position. For the time being, forces in the Ukrainian parliament which back this nationalist legislation have a majority. And, unfortunately, the strong anti-Russian sentiment among MPs doesn’t help the situation either. The main target of the law is the group of over ten million Ukrainian citizens whose mother tongue is Russian. The intention behind the controversial law is to urge as many native Russian speakers to switch to Ukrainian as possible. Besides being unacceptably discriminative, the law seems to be inefficient as well. Realizing this, Zelenskiy pointed out that defending the state language can be better achieved by stimulation than by a policy based on a ban, which may be counter-productive.

For the small and vulnerable Hungarian minority, holding out is not as viable as it is for the relatively large bulk of native Russian speakers. In one respect, though, they are the victims of the same tectonic movements: the historical power struggle between the USA, and to a lesser degree, the EU, and Russia as part of a global contest for resources and future positions economically, militarily, etc.

Only time will tell whether Ukraine will continue on the path of revitalized nationalism or find a more balanced, democratic scenario wherein the local traditions of ethnic minorities are fully respected.

In the featured photo: Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin in Washington. Photo by Mitko Sztojcsev/Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade