Fears Russian speakers will be marginalised but backers say move bolsters national identity
Ukraine’s parliament has adopted a law that will require the use of the Ukrainian language in most aspects of public life, a decision supporters say will strengthen national identity but that critics contend could disenfranchise the country’s native Russian speakers.
The law, which passed with a 278-38 majority, will require all Ukrainian citizens to know the state language and that it be used while performing official duties. Those subject to the latter requirement will include politicians, judges, doctors, employees of the national bank and state-owned companies, officers in the military, teachers and others.
The new law also requires that 90% of TV and film content be in Ukrainian and for Ukrainian-language printed media and books to make up at least 50% of the total output.
There are exemptions for private communications and religious ceremonies. The law would allow some providers of health services and law enforcement to use other languages, such as Russian, by mutual agreement.
The bill was championed by Petro Poroshenko, the outgoing president who campaigned on a patriotic platform, proclaiming his support for the army, an independent Ukrainianchurch, and the Ukrainian language.
The vote was met with cheers in the Rada, as politicians snapped selfies and shouted “glory to Ukraine”, before breaking into a rendition of the country’s national anthem.
“This is one more important step on the path to our independence,” Poroshenko wrote in a post on Facebook after the vote.
The bill was passed one day after Russia allowed residents of separatist territories in east Ukraine to apply for passports, a move seen in Kyiv as a gambit by Moscow to further integrate those territories into Russia. The US called the move an intensification of the “assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and the president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said it confirmed Russia’s position as an “aggressor state”.
The Kremlin has been a vocal critic of Ukraine’s plans to pass laws on language, and pundits on Russian television have claimed incorrectly that the country wants to ban Russian outright. Speaking on Thursday, Vladimir Putin presented Poroshenko’s landslide defeat as a “complete fiasco for Poroshenko’s policy”.
A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday called the Ukrainian law “scandalous” and unconstitutional, claiming it “exacerbated the split in Ukrainian society.”
The use of Russian by Ukrainian officials has become increasingly contentious since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in the country’s south-east, one of the regions where Russian is predominantly spoken. A decision by the city of Lviv last year to place a “moratorium” on Russian-language books, films and songs was struck down by a court in January.
The national effort to legislate for the use of Ukrainian has also been criticised internationally. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in October that a draft version of the law raised “serious concerns as to the compatibility of certain regulations with international human rights standards, particularly in respect to language proficiency requirements for accessing public office”.
Zelenskiy, who won a landslide victory over Poroshenko in the presidential election on Sunday, speaks Russian natively and has spoken publicly about his efforts to improve his Ukrainian.
Zelenskiy has avoided speaking out against the law. But on Thursday he said that when he was sworn in he would “make a careful analysis of this law to ensure that it respects the constitutional rights and interests of all the citizens of Ukraine”.
In March, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology published findings that 28.1% of Ukrainians spoke mostly or only Russian with their families, including 15.8% who exclusively spoke Russian. That compared with 46% who spoke mostly or only Ukrainian with their families, and 24.9% who spoke the two languages in equal proportion.