Archive for December 20th, 2011


Ukrainian language and the Venice Commission

December 20, 2011

As somebody who is abysmal when it comes to the Ukrainian language, (some would assert my English is not much better) and with acceptable Russian, I can relate to the issues faced by many Ukrainians in a similar position to mine when it comes to official documentation being pushed under my nose for signature written in Ukrainian.

Many Ukrainians simply do not know, or will not use, Ukrainian, preferring Russian or Crimean Tartar as their language of choice.  Many have never even been educated in the Ukrainian language as Russian was the de facto language of the USSR and have continued to use Russian over the past 20 years since its collapse.

Now this is of course, understandably, a very emotive issue for some Ukrainians whether they be on the side of only using the Ukrainian language or those who use the Russian or Tartar languages amongst others.  Whilst the State may dictate that only Ukrainian language can be used in all official documentation in an effort to assist in a national identity, it cannot of course, force people to use it in their every day lives outside of State bureaucracy.

Imagine telling the Welsh they can only speak Welsh and trying to enforce it.  Welsh and English run side by side in all official bureaucracy in Wales.

India and China also manage to have numerous languages in use despite an official State language.

Neither the Welsh, Chinese or Indians have any national identity issues despite large sections of their communities using languages other than the State language all the time.

Anyway, the issue of language in Ukraine is divisive.  Some would say that Ukrainian officials should always and only ever speak in Ukrainian.  What of their human rights to speak in the language of their choice?  What of getting their message to the entire electorate and not just the Ukrainian speaking part?  What if the Ukrainian government official can’t speak Ukrainian like so many of the citizens of Ukraine?

All complex and emotive stuff and an issue that divides rather than solidifies another thread when it comes to national identity.

However, for many people the language issue only becomes an issue when they are reminded of it, normally through Ukrainian MPs cyclically bringing it back into the public spotlight but without any real solutions.

Now we have yet another MP, Sergey Kivalov, whom I know quite well (and is much touted to be the next Odessa Mayor in the New Year ) taking a draft law to the Venice Commission for its feedback before putting it before the RADA and making legal and binding changes to  the issue of language in Ukraine.

It is commendable that it was shown to the Venice Commission and feedback sought of course but quite how he thinks any form of further legitimacy will be brought to such a law because a group of Europeans, many of whom cannot speak either Ukrainian, Russian or Tartar, have said it is OK from a human rights perspective, I am unsure.  The very fact it is such an issue means justification by a foreign entity such as the Venice Commission is unlikely to calm those voices which state Ukrainian only in Ukraine.  After all identity is about the “self” and “others”.  Now foreign “others” have been involved to some how justify matters.

Basically the new proposed law retains Ukrainian as the official language of the State but also guarantees protection for the regional and minority languages in Ukraine.  Very useful for a man who is likely to become the Mayor of Odessa very soon, a Russian speaking city where Ukrainian is very rarely heard.

However, returning to my opening paragraph, will the new law automatically allow for official documentation to be produced in more languages that Ukrainian to meet the linguistic needs of regional and minority language users who do not understand the Ukrainian language?

If not, the issues of minority languages are seemingly already protected in Ukraine under Title II, “Human and Citizen’s Rights, Freedoms and Duties”, Article 24 of the Ukrainian Constitution and the Council of Europe’s “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”  on such matters to which Ukraine is a ratified signatory.

To be precise, on 19 September 2005 Ukraine ratified the ECfRML and specifically recognised the regional and minority languages in Ukraine of:

Crimean Tatar

You must then ask what is the point to the new law – and I will when I see him next!

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