Russian language minority in Ukraine: To the rescue?
by Kateryna Dronova (Berkeley, CA)
On the numerous occasions, the Russian government declared
that the primary reason for the invasion of Russian troops into Crimea was protection of Russian-speaking population subjected
to alleged persecution and oppression. This post aims to probe this claim and
overviews compliance of Ukraine with its obligations to protect the
According to the 2001 Census, Ukrainians
comprise 77.8% of the population, while the part of Russians in total
population accounted for 17.3 %.
Ukraine, % of
Crimea, % of
Source: 2001 Census.
The language structure of Ukraine appeared to be more
complex. Again according to the 2001 Census, 67.5 % of Ukrainian population
indicated that their mother tongue is Ukrainian and 29.6 % of population named
Russian as their native language. More recent surveys show a similar picture.
language used in communication in Ukraine (2011)
Interestingly, only 4 percent of Russians in Ukraine treat
the Ukrainian language as native while 15% of Ukrainians treat the Russian
language as their native. At this rate, the Ukrainian language is more likely
to disappear than the Russian language.
The part of those whose
mother tongue was (%)
Language of nationality
Source: 2001 Census.
The situation in Crimea is special in many ways: percentage
of the population for Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars is 58.3, 24.3 and
12 respectively. The vast majority of people in Crimea speak Russian.
Which language do you consider a native
language (Crimea, 2008)
In general, all surveys indicate
that Russian is the second most popular language in Ukraine. The overwhelming
majority of Ukrainian population either knows or understands Russian.
Russian-speaking population is prevailing in Crimea. The last table is of a
special significance in this respect. In 2008 (17 years after the declaration
of independence by Ukraine) a little less than a half of Crimean population
(43-44%) did not possess a working knowledge of the official language of the
state and still successfully functioned, carried out business and participated
in social and cultural life of the peninsula. One can’t help wondering how the
state of “permanent oppression” and “forced ukrainization” worked there.
The sad ballad on the “Law on languages”
The whole dispute about Russian
minority in Ukraine may not be held without proper reference to the history of
infamous Ukrainian Law "On the principles of the state language policy”
of July 3, 2012 drafted by two members of ex-ruling party: Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko (both
deserve a separate chapter about their “achievements” on Ukrainian political
This Law gives a status of a
“regional language” to a minority language in those administrative districts
where the part of representatives of such national or ethnic minority exceeds
10% of the total population. This status permits using such regional language
in courts, educational and other governmental institutions. However, this Law
mostly favors Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions, where Russian
language was almost immediately declared regional language after the Law came
into force (e.g. in Crimea). Only a handful of cities and villages managed to
obtain similar benefits for Romanian and Hungarian national minorities.
The Law aimed to fulfill
obligations of Ukraine under European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
However, as Prof. Volodymyr Vasylenko accurately noted, the Charter was
misinterpreted by authors of the Law: the preamble of the Charter states that
its provisions were intended to provide protection to those language minorities
which “are in danger of eventual extinction,” and extinction is definitely not
the case of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. The bill was criticized as infringing Constitutional provisions
and the Budget Code of Ukraine, marginalizing the Ukrainian language, and
simulating nationality-based conflicts. It was largely condemned by Ukraine’s
governmental bodies (including Main Scientific-Expert Bureau of the Supreme
Council of Ukraine, Parliamentary Committee on Budget, Ministry of Finance,
Ministry of Justice), specialized institutions of the National Academy of
Sciences of Ukraine, 67 civil society organizations, and the Venice
The bill was adopted regardless
of the large protests, students’ hunger strike, fights in the Parliament
building and came into force on 10 August 2012. In a year and a half after its
adoption, on February 28, 2014, a new post-revolutionary temporary government
in one of its first decisions repealed the Law. Without a doubt Russian
authorities rushed to condemn this resolution, while media heated up the
social tension on the issue. However, this maladroit move of Ukrainian parliamentarians was mitigated
by veto on the proposal of the Parliament issued by acting President
Oleksandr Turchynov. Hence, Ukrainian Parliament decided to create Temporary special commission and expert group to
draft a new bill on the state language policy, which should accommodate the
interests of all ethnic groups and minorities and substitute its notorious
Although, the “Law on languages”
remains in effect, the process of “language federalization” of Ukraine was
triggered (exactly as predicted) through artificial and unlawful broadening of
the scope of freedoms for one particular national minority (Russian, obviously)
and creation of an impression that these freedoms are coercively taken away (in
fact, they are not). The whole story becomes especially disappointing in
retrospective of russification policies extensively exercised by the USSR on
the territories of its republics, which led to marginalization
of Ukrainian language and even threat of its extinction (now easily observed on
example of eastern regions of Ukraine).
Protection of minority languages in Ukraine
The Constitution of Ukraine
stipulates that the official state language is Ukrainian and provides for
guarantees and protections of minority languages, while placing special
emphasis on Russian.
In Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian,
and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.
Citizens who belong to national minorities are guaranteed in
accordance with the law the right to receive instruction in their native
language, or to study their native language in state and communal educational
establishments and through national cultural societies.
On January 15, 2014 the Committee
of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages released Report and Recommendations on Application of the Charter in
Ukraine and stated that “the protection of national minorities and
their languages continues to enjoy a high level of legal recognition in
Ukraine.” In respect of the Russian language Committee specifically underlined
that most undertakings chosen by Ukraine under the Charter are fulfilled or
partly fulfilled, while the “Language Law” is “inter alia being applied
to Russian, but not to most of the other minority languages”. Therefore,
attention of the public authorities should rather be drawn to Belarusian,
Bulgarian, Crimean Tatar, Gagauz, German, Greek, Hungarian, Moldovan, Polish,
Romanian, Slovak and Yiddish languages. The pages 154-163 of the Report provide
detailed data on Ukrainian compliance with obligations under the Charter in
respect of Russian language in education (pre-school, primary, secondary,
technical and vocational, university and higher, adult and continuing
education, teaching of history and culture), judiciary and administration,
public services, media, cultural activities and facilities, economic and social
Another interesting fact that
goes along with language discussion is OSCE decision to carry out comparative
study on educational rights of Russian minority in Ukraine (April 20-25, 2009)
and ethnic Ukrainians in Russian Federation (March 9-14, 2009). The report
apparently revealed that Ukraine provides for much higher standard of
protection than Russia does. The short summary of this report is provided in
the chart below, but more information on this comparative monitoring may be found
in the interview with Pavlo Poliansky, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Education and
The persecution of
Russian-speaking population in Ukraine has never taken place. Crimea, as well
as other Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, enjoyed a broad variety of
guarantees and possibilities to cherish Russian language and Russian cultural
heritage. Among all 130 other national and ethnic minorities, Russian language
minority was distinguished with special beneficial treatment. However,
controversy over the disputably legitimate “Law on languages” provoked
significant social conflict and provided the speculative excuse for Russian
authorities to expand its territory by means of Crimean accession.