The law on languages: Ukraine on the road towards EU ‘multilingual’ club
When the Ukrainian Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) adopted on first reading a ‘contentious’ bill on the principles of language policy on 5 June 2012, the bruises and egos were still healing, fresh from the physical brawl that was started just days earlier over the very same issue. At the same time, however, the bruised egos of millions of Ukrainian citizens – lacking the right to use their own ‘language’ – have been waiting to be healed since Ukrainian independence, over 20 years ago.
Now comes the solution. The new law on languages respects diversity, while recognising the primacy of the Ukrainian language. Essentially, the new law on languages is an attempt to fulfil the obligations undertaken by Ukraine in signing and ratifying the European Languages Charter, and to ensure that minority groups – not only those who speak Russian, but those who speak 12 other languages – have their language, culture and rights protected.
Yes, that’s correct – apart from the official Ukrainian language, Russian and 12 other languages are used throughout the country; languages with a long tradition of use in the everyday lives of Ukrainian citizens.
It is high time to give Ukrainian citizens the rights they have been denied.
If formally approved by the Rada at second reading and signed by the President, the new law would, in practice, upgrade to the status of ‘regional language’ the 13 languages spoken by minorities who represent more than ten per cent of the population of some of Ukraine’s ‘oblasts’, districts and cities. The law covers not only the predominant minority language, Russian, but all non-Ukrainian languages traditionally used by nationals of Ukraine that meet the threshold of 10% for speakers in the regions, districts and towns of Ukraine. Indeed, there are many of these.
The ‘law on languages’ in practice
The new law on languages envisages the facilitation of educational and administrative activities in these languages, for certain regions (or ‘oblasts’), fully recognising the right of a substantial part of Ukraine’s population to speak and use a different language as a human right of its citizens.
It is important to remember that while the new law recognises language as an aspect of human rights for all citizens, it clearly maintains Ukrainian as the single, official language of the country; the adoption of this law was an electoral promise during the 2010 presidential campaign of Viktor F. Yanukovych.
Despite the recent firestorm that has been created around the ‘language issue’, this legislative act, in reality, brings Ukraine one step closer to the fulfilment of its obligations and commitments under the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
The Council of Europe’s Language Charter and its implementation in Ukraine
The Charter was adopted by the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical, regional and minority languages in Europe. It is based on the conviction that regional or minority languages are very much a vital part of the wealth and diversity of Europe’s cultural heritage.
The Charter (1998) has to date been ratified by 25 states, including Ukraine (in force since 2006) and 17 member states of the European Union. Additionally, eight other states have signed the Charter (with ratification pending), including France, Italy and Russia. The provisions of the Charter apply to the languages of the 13 national minorities in Ukraine: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Gagauzian, Greek, Jewish, Crimean Tatar, Moldovan, German, Polish, Russian, Romanian, Slovak and Hungarian. The Charter should be the guarantor of language rights in Ukraine. In signing the Charter, a country agrees to a series of objectives and principles based on the recognition of the languages in question, including a free use in speech, writing, and certain educational opportunities.
Ukraine and the Council of Europe
The adoption of the proposed law would ensure Ukraine’s compliance with all international treaties to which it has subscribed, in terms of minority rights. Each of these instruments creates legal obligations for Ukraine, and, by virtue of the 1996 Constitution of Ukraine, they are part of Ukrainian domestic law.
In December 2011, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts published its latest biennial report on the application of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In the report, Ukraine was encouraged to develop a structured education policy for minority languages and secure the right of minority language speakers to receive education in their languages. To date, Ukraine continues working on the improvement of those linguistic rights and making them a reality for its citizens. The draft law on the principles of policy on languages, giving effect to the Languages Charter, could become a crucial part of this process.
Ukraine: a European state joining the EU ‘multilingual’ club
The framework of regulations that the new draft law on languages purports to bring about would create an environment comparable to the one found in the United States of America, where several states recognise the use of Spanish for certain activities, but where English remains the sole official language both at the federal and state level. The EU itself supplies plentiful examples to be found of states where languages not only peacefully ‘co-exist’, but actually add to the cultural diversity, democracy and overall well-being of entire national communities. For example, in Spain, the Catalan and Basque languages, as well as the dialects of the regions of Galicia and Valencia, are officially recognised within the cultural, educational, economic and political realms of various regions of the country, and thus co-exist with the official Spanish language.
Perhaps the most well-known example is found in the capital of the EU, in Brussels, Belgium. Belgium is a model example of European ideals, rights and standards, and has long existed as not only a dual-language nation, but one where three languages are recognised as ‘official’ national languages – French, Dutch and German. And English is unofficially accepted there as well. Not to mention Switzerland, which enjoys the diversity of four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – much to the benefit of its corporate and tourist industries.
On the path towards language diversity
From the aforementioned examples, once could say that the official state recognition of multilingualism does not simply function as a ‘compromise’ between citizens of the same country, but actually works to improve the democracy, efficiency and overall comfortable functioning of a nation.
Ukraine stands to benefit from all of the positive provisions of multilingualism, already found in such established, well-functioning ‘western’ nations. Critics would say that the law on languages divides the country, but as Ukraine moves forward on the path towards European integration, every citizen must remember that the integrity and unification of an ethnically diverse country are best achieved through tolerance towards, and the mutual respect of, citizens of different nationalities, including national minorities. Prosperous EU nations and others have been guided by such principles for years. Now, it is time for Ukraine to embrace those same principles.
Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Justice, MP of Ukraine, member of the Party of Regions parliamentary faction, Doctor of Law, Professor, member of the National Academy of Legal Sciences of Ukraine
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Knowing other languages saved me at least one night in prison!