2022/06: How Russian and Other Minority Languages are Being Erased in Ukraine

Tens of millions of Ukrainians consider the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy their native tongue. Today, the right to communicate in Russian is discriminated against at the legislative level. Authorities have also sought to drive out Russian at the strategic level, even ahead of the adoption of specific regulations.

Repeal of Key Language Law

The push to openly discriminate against the Russian language began over eight years ago. On 23 February 2014, immediately following the victory of the Euromaidan coup, the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, and the coming to power of the opposition, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to repeal the law „On the Principles of the State Language Policy“, in force since August 2012. The law provided special status for the Russian language and other minority languages in those regions where they constituted the native tongue of at least 10 percent of the population.
 
The decision immediately caused a wave of protests throughout eastern Ukraine, inhabited by those who consider Russian their native language. This forced the new Ukrainian authorities to put their plans on hold, with acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoing the bill. The pre-Euromaidan language law was put before the Constitutional Court in 2016, and on 28 February, 2018, the court formally recognised it as „inconsistent“ with the provisions of the Constitution, effectively abolishing it.
 
Since that time, the language issue has been regulated by Article 10 of the Constitution, which states that “the State language of Ukraine shall be the Ukrainian language”, and that “the State shall ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine”. Article 10 also promises to guarantee the “free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities“. However, in practice, this provision has not been honoured in recent years.

Language Quotas on the Radio

In June 2016, the Verkhovna Rada adopted amendments to the law „On Television and Radio Broadcasting“, which established language quotas for radio broadcasts. From that moment on, broadcasts had to be 60 percent or more in Ukrainian.
 
Additionally, 35 percent or more of songs played on the radio needed to be in the Ukrainian language. If songs were 60 percent or more in the languages of the European Union, then the „Ukrainian quota“ was lowered to 25 percent. Ukrainian musicians received the entire prime time of listening hours – from 7 am to 2 pm and 3 pm to 10 pm.
 
At first glance, the amendments may seem innocuous. After all, what’s wrong with supporting domestic artists? The problem is that the goal of these innovations was not to promote Ukrainian-language songs, but to remove Russian from the airwaves. This was admitted by the amendments’ initiators.
 
In 2016, then-Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kyrylenko explained that “in Ukraine there are domestic FM radio stations without any songs at all in Ukrainian. If such profanation exists, the law must be changed and the stations’ licenses must be taken away, immediately”.
 

The same year, a group of Ukrainian musicians penned an appeal to then-President Petro Poroshenko demanding the shutting down of radio and television airwaves to audio and video production from Russia. The petitioners claimed that all Russian media carried with it an element of propaganda – either the exaltation of the Russian military, or the ideas of the „Russian world“ (i.e. the common civilisational and cultural space rooted in traditions, history, and the Russian language).

The most famous signatory was Oleg Skrypka, leader of the ethnic rock band „Vopli Vidoplyasova“, who said that “Ukrainians urgently need to learn to resist Russian cultural colonialism“, and that he was „certain that there are structures working to deliberately destroy the Ukrainian language in Ukraine“.

Language Quotas on TV

A year later, the Ukrainian government turned to similar quotas on television, and further tightening radio quotas. In May 2017, on Poroshenko’s initiative, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new law „On Television and Radio Broadcasting“. The new law required Ukrainian to comprise 75 percent of airtime on national and regional television and radio stations, and up to 60 percent in local markets between the periods 7 am and 10 pm.
Any channels that failed to comply faced a fine of five percent of the total license fee. Additionally, all companies broadcasting in minority languages were obligated to provide at least 30 percent of their airtime in Ukrainian.

The new law also forced TV channels to broadcast foreign films and programmes only in Ukrainian, and programmes and films created before 1 August 1991 with subtitles in Ukrainian.

Ban on Russian Language in Education

In September 2017, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new law „On Education“, providing for a gradual phasing out of Russian in education. Lessons in schools and institutions of higher learning were forced to be taught exclusively in Ukrainian. The law required that from 2018 on, classes in Russian would remain only in elementary school, and that from 1 September 2020, education in Russian would be completely eradicated from the public school system.

Other languages also suffered as a result of the updated language law, although they received a temporary respite that Russian was not given. If all goes to plan, from 1 September 2023, schools teaching in languages spoken by EU countries will also be forced to switch to Ukrainian.
 
The law predictably led to protests not only from Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, but also among minority communities of Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, and other Eastern European peoples dotting the country.
 
Hungary reacted especially sharply to the 2017 education law, vowing to block all initiatives by Kiev that are within Budapest’s power to affect until the issue between Kiev and the Hungarian community residing in western Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region was resolved.
 
Russian authorities called the education law an “act of ethnocide” of the Russian minority in Ukraine, and in September 2017, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, adopted a resolution „On the Inadmissibility of Violating the Fundamental Right of the Indigenous Peoples and National Minorities of Ukraine to Study in Their Native Languages“. In their appeal, Russian lawmakers said that the Ukrainian law did not comply with the principles and norms laid out by the United Nations Convention the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Tens of millions of Ukrainians consider the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy their native tongue. Today, the right to communicate in Russian is discriminated against at the legislative level. Authorities have also sought to drive out Russian at the strategic level, even ahead of the adoption of specific regulations.

Repeal of Key Language Law

The push to openly discriminate against the Russian language began over eight years ago. On 23 February 2014, immediately following the victory of the Euromaidan coup, the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, and the coming to power of the opposition, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to repeal the law „On the Principles of the State Language Policy“, in force since August 2012. The law provided special status for the Russian language and other minority languages in those regions where they constituted the native tongue of at least 10 percent of the population.
 
The decision immediately caused a wave of protests throughout eastern Ukraine, inhabited by those who consider Russian their native language. This forced the new Ukrainian authorities to put their plans on hold, with acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoing the bill. The pre-Euromaidan language law was put before the Constitutional Court in 2016, and on 28 February, 2018, the court formally recognised it as „inconsistent“ with the provisions of the Constitution, effectively abolishing it.
 
Since that time, the language issue has been regulated by Article 10 of the Constitution, which states that “the State language of Ukraine shall be the Ukrainian language”, and that “the State shall ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine”. Article 10 also promises to guarantee the “free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities“. However, in practice, this provision has not been honoured in recent years.

Language Quotas on the Radio

In June 2016, the Verkhovna Rada adopted amendments to the law „On Television and Radio Broadcasting“, which established language quotas for radio broadcasts. From that moment on, broadcasts had to be 60 percent or more in Ukrainian.
 
Additionally, 35 percent or more of songs played on the radio needed to be in the Ukrainian language. If songs were 60 percent or more in the languages of the European Union, then the „Ukrainian quota“ was lowered to 25 percent. Ukrainian musicians received the entire prime time of listening hours – from 7 am to 2 pm and 3 pm to 10 pm.
 
At first glance, the amendments may seem innocuous. After all, what’s wrong with supporting domestic artists? The problem is that the goal of these innovations was not to promote Ukrainian-language songs, but to remove Russian from the airwaves. This was admitted by the amendments’ initiators.
In 2016, then-Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kyrylenko explained that “in Ukraine there are domestic FM radio stations without any songs at all in Ukrainian. If such profanation exists, the law must be changed and the stations’ licenses must be taken away, immediately”.
 

The same year, a group of Ukrainian musicians penned an appeal to then-President Petro Poroshenko demanding the shutting down of radio and television airwaves to audio and video production from Russia. The petitioners claimed that all Russian media carried with it an element of propaganda – either the exaltation of the Russian military, or the ideas of the „Russian world“ (i.e. the common civilisational and cultural space rooted in traditions, history, and the Russian language).

The most famous signatory was Oleg Skrypka, leader of the ethnic rock band „Vopli Vidoplyasova“, who said that “Ukrainians urgently need to learn to resist Russian cultural colonialism“, and that he was „certain that there are structures working to deliberately destroy the Ukrainian language in Ukraine“.

Language Quotas on TV

A year later, the Ukrainian government turned to similar quotas on television, and further tightening radio quotas. In May 2017, on Poroshenko’s initiative, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new law „On Television and Radio Broadcasting“. The new law required Ukrainian to comprise 75 percent of airtime on national and regional television and radio stations, and up to 60 percent in local markets between the periods 7 am and 10 pm.
Any channels that failed to comply faced a fine of five percent of the total license fee. Additionally, all companies broadcasting in minority languages were obligated to provide at least 30 percent of their airtime in Ukrainian.

The new law also forced TV channels to broadcast foreign films and programmes only in Ukrainian, and programmes and films created before 1 August 1991 with subtitles in Ukrainian.

Ban on Russian Language in Education

In September 2017, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new law „On Education“, providing for a gradual phasing out of Russian in education. Lessons in schools and institutions of higher learning were forced to be taught exclusively in Ukrainian. The law required that from 2018 on, classes in Russian would remain only in elementary school, and that from 1 September 2020, education in Russian would be completely eradicated from the public school system.

Other languages also suffered as a result of the updated language law, although they received a temporary respite that Russian was not given. If all goes to plan, from 1 September 2023, schools teaching in languages spoken by EU countries will also be forced to switch to Ukrainian.
 
The law predictably led to protests not only from Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, but also among minority communities of Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, and other Eastern European peoples dotting the country.
Hungary reacted especially sharply to the 2017 education law, vowing to block all initiatives by Kiev that are within Budapest’s power to affect until the issue between Kiev and the Hungarian community residing in western Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region was resolved.
 
Russian authorities called the education law an “act of ethnocide” of the Russian minority in Ukraine, and in September 2017, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, adopted a resolution „On the Inadmissibility of Violating the Fundamental Right of the Indigenous Peoples and National Minorities of Ukraine to Study in Their Native Languages“. In their appeal, Russian lawmakers said that the Ukrainian law did not comply with the principles and norms laid out by the United Nations Convention the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
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