Muriel Wagner

Largely ignored by western media, the Ukrainian Parlament has just adopted a new education law heavily affecting the use of minority languages in higher education. Their minorities directly being affected, Romania and Hungary have expressed their concerns – where are all the other voices calling in European values, taking a stand for linguistic diversity, minority rights and solidarity throughout Europe?

According to Ukrainian media, the new reforms passing parliament in the first week of September will „bring Ukrainian education closer to European standards“.[1] While it enables schools to form their own curricula and choose more freely in their teaching methods, it also includes the restriction of minority languages in higher education.

Such severe restrictions would have immediate consequences on more than 150.000 Hungarians and over 400.000 Romanians living as minorities in Ukraine. Reactions from Hungarian and Romanian politicians were prompt and determined. Standing out for the second biggest community in Ukraine after the Russian minority, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed their concerns and underlined that the Romanian State feels responsable for the preserving of the rights of the Romanian minority living in the Ukrainian state.

The new law „strongly violates the rights of the Hungarian minority“, criticized Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went on: „It is shameful that a country which is striving to develop an increasingly close relationship with the European Union has made a decision that is in complete opposition to European values“.

Indeed, several institutions are to be severely hit by the amendments. For the Hungarian community, it would threaten not only the further existence of the college in Berehove/Beregszász but also of the University of Uzhorog/Ungvár, where until now teaching in Hungarian language had been provided.

The Hungarian minority lives a life deeply entangled with Hungary, which can be illustrated by the fact that in shops, opening hours go by the Hungarian time zone, instead of the official time zone of Kiev. This reveals also a problem, as the majority of Hungarian pupils leave school without knowing the Ukrainian language to an adequate extent, which would allow them to find a job in the country they were born in. But how could this justify the restriction of their language which is crucial for their cultural identity and for their survival as a minority?

Ukraine has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which contains various principles for the protection and promotion of historical regional languages. Still, laws regarding language use have caused troubles in the past, most recently in 2012, when a new policy allowed regions with a high minority rate to use their language in administration – in 2014, the changes were dismissed. The conflict usually targets the Russian minority in the first place. As they’re forming the biggest minority group in Europe, there is a fear that the country might drift apart.

However, changes in the language policy also heavily affect all the other minorities in the country. In a common letter, the Foreign Ministries of Greece and Bulgaria have now joined the Hungarian and Romanian protest. In Hungary, several political parties have organised demonstrations expressing their opposition.

The European Congress of Local and Regional Authorities[2] has released a recommendation which demands continuity for education in the minority language and guaranteeing its use in secondary education. Furthermore, the EU finds minority language use should also be supported in higher education and include university-level research.[3]

The EU clearly calls for linguistic diversity and prohibits discrimination on grounds of language. Regarding Ukraines aspirations to join the EU, the changes in minority language rights in Ukrainian law should well be worth a Europe-wide discourse.


Muriel Wagner

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author, and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of ALDA and the European Union.