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The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Preparing the ground for a referendum on Russian language status?

Halya Coynash

As feared, it seems at least highly possible that the new and contentious law on national referendums could be used to override the Constitution’s stipulation that Ukraine has one State language, that being Ukrainian.

During an interview on Channel 5 (quoted here), Volodymyr Rybak, the new Verkhovna Rada Speaker stated the following:

“At present there is the Constitution. Let’s implement the Constitution. There is the Ukrainian language. The Russian language is not the language of national minorities. Half and half are spoken at present. And we now need to decide. Work is underway by the Constitutional Assembly. This issue will be reviewed in the Constitution”.

“Specialists need to sit down, scholars, professionals, civic organizations.  There will be issues which will be considered very many times….  If there is no understanding, then it will be necessary to put some questions to a referendum, this could include the language issue”

“However people should know which issue. Before being put to referendum,   you need to explain to people. Perhaps it will be necessary to put this question on the Russian language to people, but then the Verkhovna Rada should adopt the amendments to the Constitution”.

Asked whether it was a good idea to amend the language law (adopted in August 2012), raising the percentage of people who need to speak the language in order for it to become a “regional language”, Rybak said that this was possible but other languages needed to be looked at since they could get left out, leading to conflict..

Rybak’s remarks seem reasonable enough.  So in fact can a cursory glance at both laws in question if the context is ignored. 

The highly contentious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language bill (Law on State Language Policy) was signed by President Yanukovych on 8 August.  A list of at least some of those state bodies, European structures, authoritative NGOs and individuals whose objections were thus ignored can be found in Yanukovych’s record-breaking legislative feat   Their concerns are most succinctly put in the statementfrom the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine [VAAD]: “The draft law poses a threat to Ukrainian society since it disregards the State status of the Ukrainian language, does not protect minority languages at risk and arouses dissent and tension in Ukrainian society”.

Yanukovych signed the bill while stating that he was creating a committee to consider changes.  Thus far the only possible change which has been reported is the above-mentioned increase in the percentage needed for a language to receive regional language status.  The increase suggested would almost certainly exclude all languages except Russian.  This would be of no concern to the parties which supported the language law which was reported within Ukraine and abroad as being aimed at strengthening the position of the Russian language. It would however serve to preclude the likely flow of court cases over failure by the authorities to enforce the law with respect to other languages.  Such failure is inevitable since regional language status means that all documents, textbooks etc can be demanded in that language.  

Worth noting that both Yanukovych and the then speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn received the UHHRU Thistle of the Year (worst human rights offender) anti-award for their part for aiding and abetting both the language law and a law removing vast amounts of public procurement from tender procedure.  

Rybak’s words come only days after a Rating Public Opinion Survey found that 51% of Ukrainians are against making Russian a State language

They come around 6 weeks after President Yanukovych ignored other calls to veto the Law on National Referendums.  This law enables a number of issues to be put to referendum at the same time; makes no stipulation as to how the questions are put; introduces no safeguards whatsoever for ensuring that all interested parties have equal opportunity to present their case.  Among the other major concerns about this law is the fact that the arrangements for the election commissions, vote count etc are remarkably similar to those which were condemned by virtually all Ukrainian and international observers at the October parliamentary elections.

While the issue is so contentious that many Ukrainians will have a firm position on it, the scope for manipulation is still vast.   This is while public opinion polls have consistently found that among the issues which concern Ukrainians most, language is only beaten for bottom place by membership of NATO.  With presidential elections not so very far off, the socio-economic situation disastrous and the regime hurtling to political isolation over human rights issues, the political dividends from the language card seem clear. As, unfortunately, do the options for other dangerous questions to be deftly included in the same referendum, including other dangerous amendments to Ukraine’s Constitution..  

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