EU language policy specialist: “We have received no individual complaints from Russians”


Bill Bavring is a well-known lawyer and European Commission specialist on language policy. He spoke to Kyryllo Bulkin from Radio Svoboda during a recent visit to Kyiv to prepare his report for the final conference within the project “Language policy in Ukraine”.

“This is a research project funded by the EU, involving anthropologists, sociologists and socio-linguists from Ukraine, Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom, as well as myself, a lawyer.”

How long has the project been running?

For two years.

And what are the main results so far?

Sociologists have surveyed public opinion throughout the country on many issues of language policy. We have also held focus groups in some Ukrainian cities. Our anthropologist, Vera Svirska, who is working at Cambridge University in the UK, also spent a lot of time in Odessa investigating the language situation from an anthropological point of view. I have been researching the situation and the development of legislation and legal practice on language issues.

According to your findings, what are the main problems regarding language in Ukraine?

My own personal view, based on all that I’ve read and on my own studies, is that there are no problems at the local level. It would seem that people use Ukrainian or Russian, or both, depending on circumstances, and without any obstruction. For me it is particularly important what happens later, after Ukraine has ratified the main Council of Europe agreements, for example, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages*.  I think it’s important that regardless of how events develop, that Ukraine holds firm to its commitments and international legislation.

If one speaks of language problems of national minorities, the most complaints alleging discrimination against their language are normally heard from Russians. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that ethnic Russians or people using Russian for communication do not have problems using their native language. I first looked into this issue at the end of the 90s and early years of this decade, together with Max van der Stohl, the former EU Commissioner on National Minorities. We hired a Yak-40 for a whole week and flew from Kyiv to Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa, Simferopol and then back again to Kyiv. I met with representatives of very different groups and the impression I gained was that Ukraine is doing all in its power under difficult circumstances. We have effectively not received any individual complaints from Russians. We have heard some complaints from the leaders of political organizations and from some politicians.

As well as Russians, there are other groups whose problems deserve attention. For example, the Crimean Tatars have no other homeland besides Ukraine.

The Crimean Tatars are of particular interest to me. I began following their situation in 1992. I wrote several articles on the subject and was in Simferopol and Bakhchysarai on several occasions. Some of my report in April will definitely be linked with the people who do indeed have serious groups for complaint – the Crimean Tatars. I think the problem of education is particularly serious for them since the majority of children are forced to attend Russian-language schools whether or not they want to. I therefore think that the really serious problem is for the Crimean Tatars and is very specific.

What are the trends in the language situation for the Crimean Tatars - are they improving?

There are more Crimean Tatar schools than before, however there are still not enough. There are also other problems connected with the Crimean Tatars, for example, those linked with the process of land privatization. This is an extremely difficult problem since after their deportation, others arrived and now, having returned, the Crimean Tatars find themselves in extremely unfavourable circumstances.

Are you planning to continue your work in this field in Ukraine after this project ends?

Yes, since I often come to Kyiv for work on draft laws as an expert for the Council of Europe or the EU, so I’ll definitely be returning.

*  Ukraine signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1992 and ratified it on 15 May 2003.  It became law in Ukraine from beginning of 2006. (translator)

Meanwhile, at a congress of opposition deputies from local councils meeting in Severodonetsk (the Luhansk region) Party of the Regions National Deputy Vadim Kolesnichenko spoke of violations of the rights of Russian language speakers in Ukraine. He accused the authorities of “ethnic aggression” and “hounding of the Russian language”. He called for a major “spring offensive” in order to defend the Russian language in Ukraine.

He called on the congress participants to demand that parliament support more than 20 draft laws proposed by the Party of the Regions for protecting the Russian language.  As examples of what the deputies call discrimination of the Russian-speaking population, Mr Kolesnichenko gave figures which he claimed showed that since Independence, more than 3 thousand schools had been closed where children had been taught in Russian.**. He also alleged that more than 40 laws had been passed which “exclude the Russian language from all spheres of life”.

From a report at

**  It is worth remembering that under Soviet rule, Ukrainian was definitely a second-class language in Ukraine.  (translator)

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