In the early 1990s diplomacy was indeed a growth industry: as independent countries proliferated, so did diplomatic missions and their staff. The unexpected, sudden and relatively peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union introduced, or rather re-introduced Ukraine to the international community as a sizeable power that even had some nuclear weapons. The debut of the new state was promising: it adopted democratic laws, gave up its nukes, and established good relations with all its neighbours.

Ukraine was not a brand new state. The state built on the River Dnieper is one of the oldest in Europe. Kievan Rus, perhaps founded by Vikings but inhabited mainly by Eastern Slavs, was a large and powerful medieval monarchy; it was destroyed by the Mongol-Tatar invasion in the 13th century. The Grand Duchy of Muscovy gradually grew into the Russian Empire, after the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium claiming to be the Third Rome. In the 17th century it acquired the territories east of the River Dnieper from the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. In the 18th, with the partitions of Poland, Russia annexed more territories in its western neighbourhood, inhabited by Cossacks and peasants who spoke a Slavic dialect. The Habsburg Empire obtained and held until 1918 Galizien (Galicia), much of today’s Western Ukraine and Southern Poland. Ukraine means borderland, and the local language became increasingly distinct from Russian. Despite (or because of) that in the Russian Empire the Ukrainian language was banned from the early 19th century. With Taras Shevchenko and his followers it developed into a literary language in eastern Galicia, in rivalry with Polish, the language of the nobility and the urban middle class.

In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution there were various formations claiming the allegiance of the people of Ukraine, but finally the Bolsheviks prevailed and Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union as a federal unit. As a result of the Polish–Soviet war of 1920–21 four to five million Ukrainians were incorporated into Poland. Their rights were increasingly violated, and their protests often took the form of terrorist acts. In the “Soviet Socialist Republic” the Ukrainian language was taught in schools, but a “Soviet identity” was the aim, and the language the elite used was Russian. Most of the victims of the great famine in the early 1930s, the “Holodomor”, were Ukrainians. Ukrainian national feeling, “nationalism” risked a ticket to a Gulag camp. That explains why the invading Germans were at first welcomed by many Ukrainians, but Hitler’s crazy racism soon led to partisan warfare against the aggressors. In Western Ukraine, Polish anti-Nazi resistance and Ukrainian nationalists often clashed; the massacres probably claimed more Polish than Ukrainian lives. Since the collapse of Communism the details of those acts have become the subject of heated debates, poisoning the otherwise cordial Polish–Ukrainian relations. The object of the clashes, however, was eliminated, as at the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union annexed what used to be Eastern Poland and its Polish population fled or was expelled.

In 1954, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the “reunification” of Russia and Ukraine (rather called an “annexation” by many these days) the Crimea, with its predominantly Russian population, was transferred to Ukraine. That administrative move had little if any meaning at that time. During the last years of the Soviet Union the 15 “Socialist Republics” managed to increase their autonomy. People of Ukrainian origin gained influence in the Soviet central leadership, while the small local government in Kiev increased its authority. The process accelerated after 1989 and culminated in the Declaration of Independence by the Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada on 24 August 1991. It was endorsed by a national referendum held on 1 December 1991, when an overwhelming majority of 92.3 per cent of voters approved it. At that time the population of the newly independent state was close to 52 million. By ethnic origin or mother tongue 37 million were Ukrainian (73 per cent) and 11 million Russian (22 per cent). Other national minorities included close to half a million Romanians, a similar number of Belarusians and Jews, 230,000 Bulgarians, 220,000 Poles, and 160,000 Hungarians. Those demographics appeared to be a potential basis for Ukraine to become a sort of Switzerland of the East, especially given that all of those ethnic groups had kin-states of their own, just beyond the border. It seemed obvious that keeping those minorities happy necessitated an enlightened, generous policy.

The first leaders of independent Ukraine apparently understood the importance of good relations with the neighbours, one of the basic requirements of which was the fair treatment of the national minorities. The pilot project was with Hungary. Hungary was not the most important of the neighbours: its minority in Ukraine was rather small, and the common border was short. But Kiev was aware of the fact that in 1991 Hungary was a highly respected country on account of its role in the historic changes that ended in the collapse of Communism in Europe. Hungary was also seen as a model democracy, the first post-Communist country to be admitted into the Council of Europe, and the front-runner in the transition to a market economy. It was also well-known that Hungary placed great emphasis on the rights of national minorities, due to its almost three million-strong diaspora in the neighbouring states. Hence, on the threshold of independence Ukraine started talks with Hungary on safeguarding the rights of its Hungarians. In May 1991, a “Declaration on the Principles of Cooperation between the Republic of Hungary and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in Guaranteeing the Rights of National Minorities” was signed by the two foreign ministers.

The Hungarians of Ukraine lived in a compact bloc on the eastern side of the common border, on the rim of the province known as Zakarpattia Oblast, Transcarpathian Ukraine, or Subcarpathia as seen from Hungary. The region was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary for a thousand years. Flanked on the east by the Eastern Carpathians mountain range, its western part is flat, an extension of the Great Hungarian Plain, and is inhabited mainly by Hungarians. The mountainous part had a Slavic population, speaking various dialects, similar to Ukrainian or Polish. Following the First World War and the subsequent Peace Treaty of Trianon, the territory was transferred to the newly-created Czechoslovakia. At that time its population of 600,000 consisted of around 55 per cent Rusyn (an ethnic group considered close to Ukrainians), 30 per cent Hungarian, 10 per cent German and around one per cent Slovak. The peacemakers wanted to cut Hungary from its traditional friend, Poland, and to deprive the truncated country of several strategic railway lines and roads. When Nazi Germany marched into Prague in March 1939 and Slovakia declared its independence, Hungary occupied Subcarpathia, re-establishing a common border with Poland. That border soon proved to be essential: in September 1939 Germany attacked Poland, and retreating Polish soldiers as well as tens of thousands of civilian refugees were admitted in and welcomed by Hungary. Most of the soldiers eventually made their way to join the Allied forces in France or Egypt, participating also in the Battle of Britain, and later in the campaign in Italy. Following the military occupation of Hungary by Germany in March 1944 the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz commenced. The substantial Jewish population of Subcarpathia (close to 80,000) was the first victim. In October 1944 the Soviet Red Army was already fighting for Debrecen and closed in on Budapest, therefore Subcarpathia had to be evacuated by the Hungarian Army. After a sham opinion poll the occupying Soviets proclaimed Subcarpathia part of Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia signed a treaty acquiescing to its new status in 1945. Almost all the German inhabitants fled or were deported to Soviet forced labour camps, as were most adult Hungarian males as well, only a small fraction of them ever returning. By the end of the 1980s large-scale immigration from the East had further changed the ethnic composition of the region dramatically: 1 million Ukrainians (80 per cent), 155,000 Hungarians (12 per cent), the rest comprised of Russians, Romanians, Roma etc.

The 1991 Declaration was much more than mere platitudes; it addressed the essential issues for the Hungarian minority. It recognised the individual as well as the collective rights of the Hungarians, and committed the two sides to “take political, legal and administrative steps aimed at creating favourable conditions for the preservation and enhancement of their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity”. It banned anti-minority propaganda, ensured the use of Hungarian in public affairs and, most importantly in respect of the present controversy about the language of instruction, its Article 10 said: “The Parties agree to ensure to the national minorities the necessary conditions for learning, and studying in their native language at all levels of education. Practical problems arising on this score will be settled by the Joint Committee to be set up according to point 16 of this Declaration.” That ran as follows: “To monitor implementation of the principles laid down in the present Declaration, as well as fulfilment of the commitments undertaken, the Parties are to express their readiness to set up a Joint Committee composed of representatives from the two Parties’ state bodies and national minorities.” The Declaration ended with a commitment “to promote the international codification of minority rights at bilateral, regional and universal level. [The Parties] express their readiness to support efforts along this line in the UNO and the forums of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.” In order to facilitate that commitment, “further states shall be welcome to join the present Declaration”, and the parties expressed “their readiness to consult all concerned states on the principles laid down herein”. (A few months later Croatia joined the Declaration, and Slovenia concluded a special treaty with Hungary on the mutual protection of national minorities.) This Declaration and the Protocol setting up the Joint Committee was incorporated into the bilateral Treaty on Good Neighbourhood and Cooperation signed on 6 December 1991 by the two countries and ratified by mid-1993. The signatories of the bilateral treaty, following the pattern set up by Germany with its treaties signed in 1991 with Czechoslovakia and Poland, mutually renounced territorial claims against each other. These agreements (including a similar treaty between Poland and Ukraine) were not simply gestures: they were essential for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a new state without internationally recognised borders.

The principles and commitments signed by Ukraine with Hungary were soon enacted into national law by the Kiev Rada. Law No. 2494-12 of 25 June 1992 On National Minorities was indeed forthright: “Article 6. The state guarantees to all national minorities the rights to national-cultural autonomy: the using and learning of their native languages in state educational establishments or at national- cultural societies; development of national-cultural traditions, using of national symbols, celebration of their national holidays, exercising their religions, satisfying their needs for literature, art, mass media, establishing their national-cultural and educational institutions and any activity, which is not in conflict with this law.” Article 8 meanwhile in essence gave minority languages the status of a second official language where the minority group formed a local majority: “At working places of state bodies, public associations as well as enterprises, establishments and organisations situated in places where the majority of the population is made up by a national minority, its native language may be used as well as the Ukrainian state language.” The governor of Zakarpattia even stipulated that wherever the minority forms the local majority officials must be well-versed in the language of the minority. Finally, Article 19 stated that “if an international agreement of Ukraine does not correspond with the regulations established by Ukrainian law about national minorities, regulations of the international agreement have priority”.

It is against that older and more recent historical background that the new Ukrainian Education Law, more particularly its Article 7, must be seen. On 5 September 2017 Ukraine’s Parliament passed a new education law. Reforms were badly needed, so the legislation was welcomed by many foreign observers. The curriculum will be modernised, teachers’ salaries will be raised substantially, while public education will be compulsory until the age of 18. But to the chagrin of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and even Greece, from the age of 10 all schools must teach in Ukrainian. The languages of the minority groups would be relegated to a subject, and the language and literature of the minority would be taught only for a few hours a week. The purported aim is to improve the knowledge of the state language, Ukrainian, to enable the members of the national minorities to compete on the job market on equal terms, and even “to enable them to become President of Ukraine”, as the official line goes. An understandable, even commendable purpose, according to the first foreign responders. A more realistic reaction however was that the aim in fact was to reduce the use of Russian (commonly spoken even in Kiev), or to achieve an even loftier ambition: to change the identity of the new generations, to “Ukrainise” the non-Ukrainians under the guise of promoting the knowledge of the official language.

Many Western observers do not believe such intentions exist. But in Central and Eastern Europe such projects are not unheard of, and hark back to the birth of modern nationalism. At some point in their past all states in the region that have or had a substantial number of citizens who belonged to a national minority tried to reduce their number and proportion by assimilation, expulsion or even outright extermination. (In the Balkans most recently that practice was called “ethnic cleansing”.) In somewhat milder forms the Welsh in the UK, the Bretons and Corsicans in France, Poles in Prussia, and Slovaks in historical Hungary had all been objects of such “de-nationalising” efforts in the past. Today the concept of human rights, recommendations and conventions of the OSCE and the Council of Europe prohibit such attempts. It has been suggested by some that the new Ukrainian law is directed “only” against the Russian language, and that the other minorities are merely victims of “collateral damage”. Even if that were the case it still would not be acceptable.

What is widely accepted is that it is legitimate and even commendable to improve the teaching of Ukrainian to children of non-Ukrainian background. But it is a fundamental mistake to oblige all to master the official language. It is in the interest of the minority to have a good command of it, but if a person is unable to learn it, or does not want to learn it, he/she should not be punished for that. The best and most effective way of learning the official language is to teach it as a foreign language, with adequate material and teaching conditions. One lesson a day in Ukrainian should make every non-Ukrainian student fluent in Ukrainian by the time he or she finished school. But to learn mathematics, physics, chemistry etc. through Ukrainian will lead not to a better command of Ukrainian, but only poor performance by the students in those subjects. Those who want to continue their studies in an institution of higher education, where the language of instruction is Ukrainian, will have a much better chance to be admitted if they acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in their native language, and can pass the entrance exam in their own language. Entering a Ukrainian university they would very quickly improve their command of the language of instruction, just as hundreds of thousands of their European contemporaries do, who, having completed their studies in their own country in their own language, would spend a few semesters at a university in another EU country, studying in a different language. So the solution is not to impose Ukrainian language schools on young children, but to teach them Ukrainian with good methods and good teachers.

Until now Hungarian (and other national minority) children in Ukraine could study in their own language until they finished secondary school. The new law deprives them of that basic right. Why do both students and their parents prefer study in their native language rather than in Ukrainian? Because it is a universal experience, confirmed by educational experts, that learning is far more effective in the mother tongue; consequently real equality of opportunity for members of national minorities can be guaranteed by permitting them to learn in their mother tongue, by having elementary and secondary schools where the language of instruction is their own native language.

All the communities affected by the planned transformation of thousands of schools teaching in minority languages protested, while their kin-states used strong language in denouncing the measure. Hungary was especially loud and repeatedly said that it would block Ukraine’s further integration into the European Union. Recently Hungary vetoed a meeting of the NATO–Ukraine Commission. Eleven NATO members deplored that, but Hungary stands on solid ground, since the new Ukrainian regulation is a clear and gross violation of the bilateral treaty, and also of the 1992 Ukrainian Law on National Minorities. As we have seen, Article 19 of the latter states that an international agreement has priority over any national legislation. (Hungarian government officials could strengthen further their justified criticism of the article in question by referring to the 1991 bilateral treaty and the 1992 law.)

Both Ukraine and its critics turned to the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (the “Venice Commission”). As experienced observers expected, the internationally renowned legal experts were very tactful in their 25 page long opinion published on 8 December 2017.1 All the parties can find elements within that to please or displease. The Commission approved the aims of the law: “It is a legitimate and commendable aim for states to promote the strengthening of the state language and its command by all citizens, and to take action for its learning by all, as a way to address existing inequalities and to facilitate more effective integration of persons belonging to national minorities into society.” On that basis the Ukrainian Ministry for Education, the Ukrainian media and its international outlets hail the opinion as a great victory for Ukraine and as a defeat for Hungary. The Venice Commission, however, also found that “criticism seems justified due to a number of reasons”. First: “The Article, as adopted, is quite different from the draft on which minorities were consulted.” According to paragraph 120 Article 7 “actually allows to radically change the previous language regime, at least in secondary education, towards a system focused on the mandatory use of the Ukrainian language as the language of education. This could result in a substantial diminution in the opportunities available to persons belonging to national minorities to be taught in their languages, which would amount to a disproportionate interference with the existing rights of persons belonging to national minorities.” Paragraph 122: “If the law were implemented in a manner that minority languages could only be taught as a subject and there would no longer be the possibility to teach other subjects in the minority language, this could clearly be a disproportionate interference with the existing rights of minorities.” The Commission, with a large dollop of wishful thinking, stated that in the implementation process the Ukrainian authorities can remedy the situation: “the Law on General Secondary Education, still to be adopted, could provide for more detailed and balanced solutions”. The Conclusions also made much of the legal loophole in the law, which raises the possibility of teaching certain subjects in the official languages of the EU: “The results of the current bilateral talks with minorities’ kin-states could provide useful input to the implementation of Article 7 in this respect.” Since that would not apply to Russian, the Commission tactfully comments: “The less favourable treatment of these languages [Russian and other non-EU languages] is difficult to justify and therefore raises issues of discrimination.”

Having tried to please both Ukraine and its critics, the Commission’s final verdict can have only one interpretation, namely that Article 7 has to be substantially modified: “the appropriate solution would certainly be to amend Article 7 and replace this provision with a more balanced and more clearly worded one”. In more details: “the Venice Commission recommends in particular: to fully use, when adopting implementing legislation, the possibilities provided by paragraph 4 of Article 7 to ensure a sufficient level of teaching in official languages of the European Union for the respective minorities; to continue ensuring a sufficient proportion of education in minority languages at the primary and secondary levels, in addition to the teaching of the state language; to improve the quality of teaching of the state language; to amend the relevant transitional provisions of the Education Law to provide more time for a gradual reform; to exempt private schools from the new language requirements in accordance with Article 13 of the Framework Convention; to enter, within the framework of the implementation of the new Education Law, into a new dialogue with representatives of national minorities and all interested parties on the language of education. To ensure that the implementation of the Law does not endanger the preservation of the minorities’ cultural heritage and the continuity of minority language education in traditional schools.”

One might think that following such a conclusion the controversy would be over, especially when one remembers how loudly the Ukrainian Government said that it would respect the decision of the Venice Commission. From the reactions of Kiev however that does not seem to be the case.

The language issue in today’s Ukraine is not a cultural one. It is not about the level of education and the quality of teaching Ukrainian. The Kiev leadership maintains that knowledge of Ukrainian is rather an issue of national security. This is a most worrying statement. It implies that those citizens who do not speak Ukrainian are somehow suspicious, and a possible threat to national security. In Western Europe, and since 1990 in Central Europe too, national minorities (Swedes in Finland, Austrians in Italy [Südtirol], Danes in German Schleswig, even the Welsh in the UK, and certainly Hungarians in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia) have their own schools up to the age of 18. Does that endanger the security of those countries?

Loyalty to a state cannot be ordered, it can only be gained by good policies. That applies especially to members of national minorities. Speaking the official language will not make a person a good citizen. Can anybody believe that if all Russian- speaking Ukrainian citizens learned the Ukrainian language they would become ardent Ukrainian patriots, but if they continued to have Russian-language schools they would welcome Putin’s authoritarian rule? If Ukraine is more democratic, more free and more prosperous than Russia, if it is closer to the European Union, then the non-Ukrainian minorities will certainly prefer it to Putin’s rule. Likewise if the Hungarians in Subcarpathia can grow up in their own culture, enjoy equal rights, do not face hostile propaganda and provocations (as they often do today), they will feel more at home in their ancestral land. If they are treated as dangerous enemies (as recent demonstrations suggested) they will certainly not love Ukraine and its language, and may even feel forced to emigrate to Hungary. Is that the aim? Perhaps that can happen to the Hungarians, but it certainly cannot happen to all the non-Ukrainians. Article 7 of the Education Law offers an ideal pretext for Russia to annex the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine in order to protect their inhabitants from “Ukrainisation”. That is unlikely to be what the authors of the law had in mind.

It is futile to turn non-Ukrainians into Ukrainians by imposing on them the official language. No country or empire has ever succeeded in such efforts. Ukraine can be strong and can preserve its integrity best by making itself the common home of Ukrainians, Russians, Romanians, Poles, Bulgarians, Hungarians and others. Each student should be educated in his or her mother tongue until the age of 18. That is what a good education law should guarantee. The Venice Commission has done a good job. Now it is up to the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the European Council, and even the Atlantic Council, to make it clear to the leadership in Kiev: the road to Europe leads through the amendment of Article 7 of the new Law on Education.


Having submitted this article I received via official diplomatic channel the reaction of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education to the Criticisms of the Venice Commission. It offers some concessions, which may form the basis of a settlement with Hungary. Since paragraph 4 of Article 7 provides a legal basis for the teaching of other subject matters in official languages of the EU, the Ukrainian Ministry envisages a longer transition period and the teaching of “fewer subjects in Ukrainian”. But this is still too vague. What is needed is a commitment to allow the secondary schools using Hungarian as the language of instruction to continue, and to specify how and in how many hours per week Ukrainian will be taught. Not only mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology must be taught in Hungarian, but history and geography too, as is the case in Hungarian schools in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia.



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