In 2017, the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a new Law on Education which limits the right of ethnic minorities to be educated in their native language after the fourth grade. In 2019, the Parliament adopted the State Language Law to expand the usage of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life. As a result, minority languages, with a few exceptions, can only be spoken in private communication or during religious events. Both laws thus strip ethnic minorities of already acquired rights.
Although the main goal of the legislation was to promote Ukrainian as the sole legitimate language, and thus can be seen as an element of anti-Russian policy, as ‘collateral damage’ it obstructs the use of all minority languages, including Hungarian, Polish and Romanian. Yet the right of national minorities to be educated in their mother tongue is a longstanding right. In the Basic Treaty between Hungary and Ukraine (signed with the express support of the US government and entered into force in 1993), both parties declared that they will ensure the necessary opportunities for national minorities to learn their native language and to study in their native language at all levels of the educational system.
Consequently, Ukraine’s 2017 Law on Education represents a radical change of the status quo. Several European governments protested against its introduction, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and Greece.
The strongest reaction definitely came from Hungary, which made it clear that it will use all diplomatic means to protect the fundamental human and minority rights of Hungarians in Subcarpathia. Subcarpathia, historically a province of Hungary, was ceded to Czechoslovakia by the terms of the Peace Treaty of Trianon after WWI, and was eventually annexed by Stalin to Ukraine SSR after WWII. Due to these border changes, Western Ukraine today includes a Hungarian national minority of 150,000 persons.
In the past three decades, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hungarian-Ukrainian relations were outstanding. Hungary was the one of the first countries which recognized the independence of Ukraine and the first country to open an embassy in Kyiv. Hungary was also a strong supporter of Ukraine’s Atlantic integration efforts, and among the first countries to ratify the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. Hungary also championed the Membership Access Plan process and Distinctive Partnership with Ukraine in NATO.
Hungary has consistently emphasized its interest in the well-being of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Western Ukraine and the preservation of their earlier acquired rights. Both countries were aware of each other’s top priorities and recognized that preserving the status quo in these areas was necessary for maintaining smooth relations.
As of 2017, in dramatically changing its minority policy, Ukraine not only turned its relationship with Hungary upside down, but also violated the fundamental human rights of hundreds of thousands of its citizens belonging to various national minority communities.
Several international organizations raised their voices against the clear violation of the fundamental human rights of Ukrainian citizens belonging to national minorities. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, the consultative body of the regional organization of Europe upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law, underlined that the new Ukrainian Law on Education entails a strong reduction in the previously acquired rights by national minorities, and, as such, it “does not appear to strike an appropriate balance between the official language and the languages of national minorities”.
The Venice Commission, a group of constitutional lawyers who advise the Council of Europe, and where the United States is represented, also expressed concerns over both the Law on Education and State Language Law, claiming that these legislations radically changed the previous language regime and fail to strike a fair balance between the aim of strengthening the Ukrainian language and sufficiently safeguarding minorities’ linguistic rights. In its Opinion 902/2017 on the Law on Education, the Venice Commission specifically recommended for Ukraine, among others, to ensure a sufficient level of teaching in official languages of the EU for the respective minorities and to continue ensuring a sufficient proportion of education in minority languages at the primary and secondary levels, and to enter into a new dialogue with representatives of national minorities. The Venice Commission made very similar recommendations with regard to the State Language Law in its Opinion 960/2019, emphasizing the importance of the earliest possible preparation of the Law on Minorities.
Although Ukraine states that it implemented the recommendations of the Venice Commission, in fact none of the aforementioned recommendations have been carried out. In January 2020, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the Law “On Complete General Secondary Education”, which was intended to clarify the provisions of the framework Law on Education. However, the more recent law does not reduce the conflict surrounding the Law on Education, whose substance remained unchanged: as of fifth grade, ever more subjects must be taught in the state language. Ukraine did postpone the transitional period for implementing the contested provisions of both the Law on Education and State Language Law until 1 September 2023 for citizens who speak an official EU language, but this is just a temporary provision and cannot be seen as a meaningful and principled answer to the criticism of restrictions on existing national minority rights. Furthermore, representatives of national minorities were not consulted about the legislative proposals, at least not the representatives of the Hungarian national community. With regard to the ‘Law on Minorities’, although Ukraine indicated that it would adopt such an act, the representatives of the Ukrainian government made it clear that they do not intend to change the restrictive provisions of the two aforementioned legal acts, and thus will not truly comply with the country’s commitments related to international human rights instruments.
Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also called on Ukraine to ensure respect for earlier acquired rights and the non-discrimination of persons belonging to national minorities, as enshrined in the UN and the Council of Europe conventions. Moreover, the problem was touched upon in the declaration adopted by the heads of state and government attending the NATO meeting in July 2018, calling on Ukraine to observe its international obligations in the area of minority rights.
NATO is founded upon certain common values, including democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. In the 1990s, the newly independent East European countries, including Hungary, agreed to comply with these values as a condition of membership.
For this reason too, Hungary has long been a strong proponent of Ukraine’s integration into Western political institutions. Adherence to common values, including specific national minority rights, is in the interest of both countries.
When Ukraine radically changed the status quo by stripping ethnic communities of already acquired rights, this was a clear breach of these fundamental principles. In response, the Hungarian government stated that, while it continues to support Ukraine’s further rapprochement with NATO, it would block top-level political meetings between the NATO and Ukraine until positive changes are made. Until then, the holding of top-level meetings would encourage the perception that Ukraine’s breach of its commitments was of no consequence.
One could argue that Hungary should not use Ukraine’s NATO accession process to support the interests of the ethnic minorities in Ukraine, and should address such issues via international human rights organizations instead. This approach, however, would fundamentally undermine NATO’s character as a community based on shared values. Extending the partnership without abiding by the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty, and especially in clear violation of the human rights of hundreds of thousands of people belonging to ethnic minorities, would provide a dangerous precedent while also undermining the region’s political stability.
The United Sates has always been strongly interested in a stable and peaceful Eastern Europe. Such stability is contingent upon vigorous government protections of minority rights and institutions, and the recognition of national minorities as a valuable, welcome, and multilingual constituent of the Ukrainian state. In contrast, Ukraine’s unnecessary disruption of the status quo, in taking away earlier acquired rights of ethnic minorities and countenancing propaganda which attacks minorities as “enemies of the state,” clearly does not promote this cornerstone principle of US foreign policy.
President Biden believes that the United States is able to implement a foreign policy which adheres to both universal principles and the national interest. Clearly, it is in the US interest that the ministerial-level meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission continue as soon as possible. However, the US must not turn a blind eye to the shared values of NATO if it truly wants to engage in principle-based diplomacy. Thus, the United States should encourage Ukraine to restore the language rights of all ethnic minorities. This step would also comply with the lessons learnt more than hundred years ago and expressed by President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference: “nothing […] is more likely to disturb the peace of the world than the treatment which might in certain circumstances be meted out to minorities.”
Balázs Tárnok, Hungary Foundation’s Visiting Research Fellow – Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame, USA; Associate Researcher – Europe Strategy Research Institute, University of Public Service, Budapest.