Language law vs. Ukraine’s Constitution

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Aug. 3, 2012, 4:57 p.m. | Op-ed — by Halya Coynash

Before adjourning for summer, Ukraine's parliament passed a controversial language law that elevates the status of Russian in regions where it is spoken by more than 10 percent of people. The bill now awaits President Viktor Yanukovych's signature or veto.

Halya Coynash

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

On July 31, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn changed his stand and signed the highly contentious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language bill. It now awaits President ViktorYanukovych’s decision whether to sign or veto the measure.

Under the guise of protecting “regional languages,” the legislation significantly increases the role of the Russian language. 

The concerns from civic and religious organizations about this law are well-summarized in a statement from the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine: “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”.

What Lytvyn’s motives can only be guessed since on July 4, following a blitzkrieg and highly irregular “vote” in parliament during his absence, he resigned. But parliament refused to accept his resignation.

The civic partnership New Citizen has received a categorical response from Marina Stavniychuk, a presidential adviser, says the draft law broke several regulations, is unconstitutional and is at odds with the European Charter of Regional and Minority Language.

The stakes are high both because of the divisive nature of the law and the flagrant violations of legislative procedure..

            The bill’s authors - Party of the Regions MPs Vadim Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov -- continue to assert that the law is in keeping with the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages and has received a favourable Council of Europe’s Venice Commission assessment. 

Recently, Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities followed up a visit to Ukraine with a public statement calling the situation around the new language law “deeply divisive” and urging the authorities to engage in dialogue.

The aim of the legislation is not to protect genuinely under-supported regional languages in Ukraine, but to allow Ukrainian to be effectively ignored in most parts of the country. Such cynical realism means that the financial consequences could either be crippling or lead to the courts being inundated with civil lawsuits by members of minorities whose rights, now supposedly enshrined in law, continued to be flouted.

Moreover, a number of infringements to procedure occurred. The first reading took place on June 5, a vote without discussion and with a large number of parliamentarians absent. 

The requisite month had not passed for the second reading, nor had many amendments been discussed and added when, in the absence of Lytvyn and the deputy speaker, the ruling Party of Regions bulldozed a “vote” through in record time. 

            The very many warnings about the deeply divisive nature of this law deserve the president’s attention, as do the shocking irregularities in the way the draft bill has been pushed through. 

In the face of clear public concern and infringements of the Constitution, Yanukovych’s signature would deliver a grave blow to Ukraine’s already beleaguered democracy.  

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.


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