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Assessment of the Draft Bill on Principles of State Language Policy

19.06.2012    source:
Yulia Tyshchenko
Yulia Tyshchenko from the Ukrainian Independent Political Research Centre scrutinizes the highly contentious draft Law on the Principles of State Language Policy (No. 9073) and how it correlates with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

An analysis of the draft Law on the Principles of State Language Policy (No. 9073) and how it correlates with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

On 5 June the Verkhovna Rada passed in its first reading a draft Law on the Principles of State Language Policy (No. 9073), tabled by Vadim Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov. The explanatory note states that on adoption of the draft law, Russia will become a regional language in 13 (out of 27) administrative territorial units.  The adoption of the bill was accompanied by large-scale protest near the Verkhovna Rada and confrontation between the police and protesters.

The draft law was first tabled on 26 August 2011 and states that it is aimed at defining the principles, objectives and tasks of Ukraine’s official language policy, the status and way of using languages in different spheres of state and public life; establishing liability for infringements of language legislation as well as making amendments regarding language issues to a number of laws.  A note is included saying that the main language to be used for office work and documentation by the authorities and local bodies of local self-government   is the State language (i.e. Ukrainian – translator). However, Article 8 § 3 proposes that in areas where a regional language (languages) is (are) spoken, this (they) can also be used. The regional language (languages) can also be used for correspondence with higher level authorities. .Legal proceedings in civil, economical, administrative and criminal cases are to be in the state language, however in areas where a regional language (languages) is (are) spoken, they can also be in the regional languages by mutual agreement (Article 8 § 3).

The draft bill in general uses only some of the definitions from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages*. This Charter was ratified by Ukraine’s Parliament on 15 May 2003.

The main challenge to its ratification came from a number of issues related to the Russian language, because defining this language as a regional or minority language remains up till the present day a threat to the existence of the Ukrainian language given Russian’s actual, as opposed to legal, status.

For example, according to the 2001 Census, the population was over 48 million with 134 minority groups making up 22.2% of the population.  The multi-ethnicity of the population is specific with 80% of all ethnic non-Ukrainians - ethnic Russians. Another complex aspect of Ukrainian multi-ethnicity is the issue of identifying the language identity as such. 5 and a half million ethnic Ukrainians, for example, named Russian as their native language. Various indicators suggest that there are three major linguistic groups in Ukraine: Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russian-speaking Russians. In this context it is rather difficult to call Russian a minority language.

The Law ratifying the Charter in May 2003 named the following regional or minority languages: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Gagauz, Greek, Jewish, Crimean Tatar, Moldavian, German, Polish, Russian, Slovak and Hungarian.  The issue of use of the Karaim and Krymchak languages has not yet been settled, nor has the question of protecting Jewish language – Hebrew or Yiddish. Additionally, the draft law includes adoption of decrees on regional identification with regard to 18 languages whereas the law on ratifying the Charter stipulated 13 regional languages.

The draft law is in line with political traditions established via political negotiations following the ratification of the Charter with regard to the Russian language which can scarcely be considered  a minority language. Parliament’s Legal Department states that the Russian language is mentioned in the draft law 9 times, it is at the first place in the list of regional or minority languages; and Article 10 § 1 would allow the  highest bodies of state power to publish documents in Ukrainian, Russian or other regional or minority languages. .

Separate norms proposed by the lawmakers are not in keeping with Ukraine’s Constitution and international documents ratified by Ukraine, in particular the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Constitutional Court Judgement from 14 December, 1999 No 10 рп/99 providing an explanation of Article 10 of the Constitution with respect to use of the State official language. The draft law includes compilations of separate definitions used in the Charter such as “region”, “regional or minority language” etc, which do not correspond to the initial definitions used in the document and the existing definitions used in Ukrainian legislation, which defines “a region” as “a territory of the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, oblast, Kyiv and Sevastopol cities”, but does not speak about the rayon or village as proposed in the draft bill.

The draft law proposes to protect national minority languages by identifying and protecting “regional or minority languages” on the territory of specific administrative-territorial units where regional language speakers make up 10% of the population. These territories may vary from the level of a region to rayon, city or a village. The rights of minorities to speak their language according to the document “should be legislatively protected in state management, education, the court system, culture, mass media, advertising, etc. The draft law does not however include a parity mechanism for law implementation in cases when several minorities or language communities live in the same territory, or the speakers of minority language live dispersed and do not make up 10% of one region’s population. Moreover, the borders of administrative-territorial units do not always correspond to the place where a minority lives. It should also be noted that the Charter does not include a 10% barrier for providing language protection.

The draft law proposes to use regional or minority languages alongside the state language virtually throughout the entire country, yet this question is contentious since regional authorities and bodies of local self-government are not competent in defining “regional languages”, as Article 10 of the Constitution does not give them the right to set a regional or minority language alongside the state language at public administration level. In fact, adoption of these norms will lead to a review of the corresponding Constitutional norms.

At the same time the Parliamentary Legal Department rightly noted that the Charter does not, in its list of steps that should be taken in order to protect and develop those languages, envisage the need to adopt special decisions by the authorities or bodies of local self-government  on declaring a regional language as a language spread at the territory of a specific administrative-territorial unit”, but includes measures aiming on popularizing the use of regional or minority languages in public life according to Article 2 § 2 of the Charter. By adopting a law, regional languages should be used alongside with the state language” in the spheres of education, mass media, public administration in most regions of Ukraine which does not correspond to Article 10 of the Constitution.

The amendments envisaged to 33 laws and bylaws regulating the spheres of education, cinematography, court system  would  significantly limit the use of the official State  language. These changes may also cover other fields and policies besides language. Yet regional languages should be used “alongside the state language” in the spheres of education, mass media, public administration in most of the regions of Ukraine this not complying with Article 10 of the Constitution.

The draft law does not include information about the sources of funding for initiatives in the sphere of language policy. It is asserted that the draft law does not need any additional budget funds as funding is already foreseen for the development and usage of Ukrainian as a state language and for the implementation of the law ratifying  the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”. This seems quite unrealistic since if  the law is adopted, it may cover wider spheres in education, advertising and public services.

At the same time it is still not clear why Ukraine needs such language integration since the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages states clearly that “protection and encouragement of regional or minority languages should not be to the detriment of the official languages and the need to learn them”.

*  For ratification, a country must adopt 35 norms of the document and ratify it with three levels of obligations. Ukraine did it to the maximum.  The Preamble states that the Charter’s main aim is to protect the historical regional or minority languages of Europe, some of which are in danger of eventual extinction, contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe’s cultural wealth and traditions. The document stresses the necessity of intercultural dialogue and multilingualism and mentions that “the protection and encouragement of regional or minority languages should not be to the detriment of the official languages and the need to learn them”. Ratifying the document is was one of Ukraine’s obligations on joining the Council of Europe – it had to sign and ratify it within a year. The document was signed on 2 May 1996, but the process of ratification lasted until 2003.

Very slightly abridged (of substance only the details about the European Charter) from the text here

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