Ukraine’s Language Law: Whose Rights Are Protected?

Natalia Kudriavtseva, associate professor of Kherson National Technical University, analyzed the Law on Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language for Wilson Center. What is forbidden under this law? What do public opinion polls show? And whose rights are protected? Read in the article.

The Law on Ensuring the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language was passed by the Ukrainian parliament on April 25, 2019, after two readings and the introduction of more than 2,000 amendments within the half year after it was first approved, in October 2018. After approval, the law became a cornerstone in then president Petro Poroshenko’s reelection campaign. A contentious subject, and not considered a top priority among Ukrainian voters, the law was nevertheless signed by Poroshenko five days before the end of his term. It is set to take effect July 16, 2019.

On the day the law was passed, Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared on Facebook that he would make sure “all the constitutional rights and interests of all Ukraine’s citizens” were observed — an indirect expression of dissatisfaction with the new requirements. “Protecting rights” becomes complicated, however, when two distinct conceptions of rights are involved. Ukraine’s treatment of the issue of language is an exemplary case of the conflict between two conceptions of rights: the rights of a language and the rights of its speakers. (In post-Soviet states, the “rights” of a language pertain to priority uses of the official language — in contrast to minority languages — on the territory of the country for official government business, matters in the public sphere, service provision, the media, and other stipulated contexts.)

Adopted by local policymakers and their domestic and international critics, these two conceptions counterpose the rights of the country’s official language to the rights of a human who is free to choose the language of communication. In Ukraine, where language has been put forward not just as a tool of communication but primarily as an identity marker, policymakers more often seek to protect the rights of the language in order to strengthen people’s sense of belonging, reinforce state unity, and strengthen the viability of the Ukrainian nation. This ideology, propagated in elite mobilization rhetoric, has underpinned the transition from Yanukovych’s bilingual policy to the monolingual policy of post-Euromaidan Ukraine and justified the new legislation aimed at promoting the use of Ukrainian in all public spheres.

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