What is the “Law on Languages” and why it is a problem? (Briefing for English-speaking friends)


By Yuriy Dzhygyr

This law (“On Regional Languages”), introduced in July 2012, states that communities with over 10% of any ethnic minority in their population may declare the language of this minority as an official regional language for their region. This means that this region would use it locally as a formal alternative to Ukrainian, e.g. for bureaucratic procedures.

In theory, this is a brilliant idea, but things get more complicated once we look beyond the surface. The approval of the law spurred massive protests, and although I did not participate in these protests, I personally was truly mad. I always thought of this Law as nicely packaged cheating, and here is why.

This law was not designed for the convenience of citizens; this law was designed for the convenience of bureaucrats. In other words, it did not make bureaucrats talk to people in the people’s languages, it worked in the opposite way – it required people to talk to bureaucrats in the bureaucrat’s language (Russian).

First, we need to remember that Ukraine is home to many ethnic minorities, including Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Greeks, Tatars, Jews, Poles, Belarusians, Albanians, and Germans. Under this law, almost all of these ethnic minorities failed to give their languages a regional status. There were only three exceptions: a town in Transcarpathia managed to declare Hungarian as its local official language, and two villages gave a local official status to Romanian. Other communities which attempted to promote their native languages were obstructed by oblast Governments appointed by the Yanukovych administration. An example is the failure of repeated requests of the Bulgarian communities in the South to promote the Bulgarian language; every attempt was blocked.

After numerous scandals caused by similar sabotage, one of the top speakers of the Party of Regions, Mr. Chechetov, publicly stated: “In our country, 46 million understand one of two languages: Russian and Ukrainian. They do not understand Bulgarian, or Hungarian, or Romanian, or Jewish, Yiddish, or whatever it is called. These other languages are understood by only a handful of people. We are talking about two languages, which are understood by the entire nation.”

Several regional councils have indeed voted for a regional status to the Russian language, but not all of them. In fact, Crimea did not use that law. Crimea did not declare Russian as their regional language because it was hard to explain why they would not simultaneously recognize the Tatar language as well. Obviously, local bureaucrats were not happy to suddenly having to learn the Tatar language.

I am trying to argue the point that this initiative was very hypocritical, controversial, and was not for the benefit of citizens but rather for the benefit of the bureaucrats.

Finally, cancelling this law was outrageously stupid. First of all, the law was dysfunctional and essentially dormant for several years; there was no urgency whatsoever to suddenly repair it. Secondly, the timing of the cancellation was highly controversial/disruptive; the law clearly symbolised pro-Yanukovych thinking throughout Ukraine’s East and South, and supporters of his administration felt immediately under attack.

The hasty cancellation of the law was met with wide public dissatisfaction. In view of this reaction, coupled with the escalation in Crimea, the President has suspended the signing of the cancellation of the law, which effectively means that the law remains valid. The Parliament has also set up a working group to develop appropriate amendments to the law, rather than cancel it altogether. The working group includes one representative from each Parliamentary faction and an open group of independent experts. The amended draft law should be submitted for voting on 11 March 2014.


Edited: Alan J. Beckett


14 thoughts on “What is the “Law on Languages” and why it is a problem? (Briefing for English-speaking friends)

  1. Flawed Chart.
    There is NO moldavian language.
    Is like saying that people from south US have a different language from North US.
    A different accent is not a different language.

    • This chart represents national structure according to latest census in 2001. It does not represent either preferences or usage of languages. So, it is indeed not the most suitable diagram for the topic of brief. I does, however, provide some proxy objective evidence for the discussion.

      I realize that same claim might be applied to national structure as well (moldovian vs romanian). I, however, decided to appeal to official data and replicated them on a chart in order to minimize judgmental statements in a sensitive area. Census data might be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_Census_(2001)

      • Still, there’s no such thing as a “Moldavian language”. I should know, I’m a Moldavian who’s family happened to be on the lucky side of the Pruth River

  2. I am a Hungarian, and because of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine we follow the news from Ukraine quiet closely. Revoking the language law was definitely an extremely stupid move. In the other hand Hungarian minority leaders confirmed that the law was not working anyway. You should work on the new language law to replace the current one, but even minorities believe it is not a priority for Ukraine, tackle the corruption and fix the economy first.
    About language law, what about the Rusyn population in the Carpathian region, there language were never recognized in Ukraine, will it be finally recognized? My wife is a rusyn, and she never had a chance to receive education in her own language or just to read a book, a newspaper in ruysin…

    • Not to knock your situation but in America we literally have hundreds of languages spoken. A friend of my is a pastor in Seattle, the surveyed the region around their church in an 8 km radius and found 105 language groups. Obviously such a law would not work in America. So then it becomes a question of integration vs. cultural autonomy. Unfortunately for many language groups in America the majority of people are intolerant and even indignant about having to deal with any language other than English.

      • Do you mean 105 native languages, or 105 different languages of immigrants? In Ukraine, Hungarians, Rusyns and many other nationalities are native, not immigrants. I think there is a big difference.

      • I may seem different to you but there are enclaves of these people were that is all the speak. Additionally we have I don’t know how many enclaves of Russian speakers, Spanish and all the dialects of native American languages

      • If you want to understand a little how things are, imagine that… the extra-terrestrials came and took over Washington State and made you all, people from Seattle included, speak the extra-terrestrial language. Tell me how much you and your children would feel like “integrating” into that, my friend

  3. Well, I come from South Africa where we have 11(!) official languages, although this number still does not cover ALL languages spoken by inhabitants. An enormous cost is involved in maintaining administration in all languages and a waste of resources which could be applied somewhere else. It is also very difficult to implement in practise. Slowly the formula developed that most of administration is conducted in English as the most “neutral” language for all groups although some conservative Afrikaners still remember Boer Wars against the English (end of 19th century). Nevertheless the translation services have to be provided on request although it slows down the procedures substantially. The modern electronic technology can help very much but, again, it is expensive to modernise the administration and equip its offices with translating capabilities.
    It is very important that the new government finds the formula that will cool emotions and be practical at the same time. It would be indeed very helpful if the Russian government did not interfere and allow all inhabitants of Ukraine find a common solution. It is a matter of urgency that the government disseminates information on the work in progress and is very careful not to create impression of leaving anybody out.
    The members of the relevant communities could also contribute by explaining the intricacies of the problems and providing ideas for satisfactorily resolving them.
    It is a fact that there are many languages on Earth, some even endangered like rare biological species but the reality is that people have to communicate effectively in a complex administration of the state and an omission of a language in the list of official ones should not be misconstrued as disregard for people who speak it. As long as they can speak it freely it is their own duty to keep it alive. My mother tongue is not among the 11.

  4. Thanks, Yuriy for a very good analysis. I also think 10% is a ridiculously small amount for which a region or community should switch languages. It should be a majority issue for a main official language and potentially a second official language if there are at least 20% speakers of that language, not less. On the other hand, Ukraine is pretty bankrupt at the moment and I think most communities would be better off spending their energy and money on more pressing matters: roads, hospitals and schools…

    • How is 20% better than 10%? That would mean even less communities would be able to use their native language – and eventually disappear in a few generations’ time. This is what is happening to the native minorities of Russia. Ukraine shouldn’t go the Russian way of dealing with minorities.
      Go the European way – if you want to be a part of Europe.

    • It’s not a question of “switching languages”, but accepting “the other” as an equal. From the best I know, this law was not about “forbiding” the Ukrainian language in those areas, but accepting that others are allowed to have and use a different language in their community, be that Romanian, Bulgarian, Tatar, Polish etc etc. And those people did not “invade” you from wherever: they are just as well “home” on those lands, as you are -you should not forget that Ukraine was composed of many different parts, inhabited by as many different nations, attached and brought together by nothing else but the arbitrary will of Stalin. The idea of Europe is about accepting that people are equal and wanting to live peacefully side by side; you will make it there only after learning this. It will take time, a lot of time, and a lot of will power, as well. Otherwise, all of you will eventually become one: Russians

  5. Obviously ethnic affiliation (that is shown in your diagram) does not necessarily conform with what language someone speaks. From wikipedia:

    “In an October 2009 poll by FOM-Ukraine of 1,000 respondents, 52% stated they use Russian as their “Language of communication”; while 41% of the respondents state they use Ukrainian and 8% stated they use a mixture of both.[1]

    A March 2010 poll[2] by Research & Branding Group showed that 65% considered Ukrainian as their native language and 33% Russian. This poll also showed the standard of knowledge of the Russian language (free conversational language, writing and reading) in current Ukraine is higher (76%) than the standard of knowledge of the Ukrainian language (69%). More respondents preferred to speak Ukrainian (46%) than Russian (38%) with 16% preferring to speak both in equal manner.”

    As i understand it it Ukraine fairly even divided between russian and ukrainian speakers (with comparibly very small minorities speaking other languages), even if the majority of russian speakers identify them as ethnic ukrainians (other than in Crimea perhaps).

    Illustrating this article with the above diagram is as close a lie it can get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s