Starting from Jan. 16, stores, cafes, gas stations and all other private businesses must provide their services to clients in Ukrainian. 

The new provision is part of the ongoing implementation of Ukraine’s language law adopted under ex-President Petro Poroshenko in April 2019.

Businesses that don’t comply with the new rule face a $200 fine. The fine will be issued only after repeated violations.

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However, not much will change for non-Ukrainian speakers. The law allows businesses to switch to another language at the client’s request.  But those who prefer to be serviced in Ukrainian now can demand that businesses switch to it.

New rules

According to the new regulations, a customer must be greeted and provided with services in Ukrainian. If the customer desires to switch to another language, the service provider can do so at the customer’s request.

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The website of a business that sells any goods or services must also be in Ukrainian by default, yet can have other languages available as secondary options.

The law specifies that a customer is not obligated to use Ukrainian and can communicate in any language. The law specifically mentions that it doesn’t regulate the use of a language in private life and during religious ceremonies.

A business can be fined if it declines to service customers in Ukrainian, which is the sole official language in Ukraine. If a business refuses or can’t provide services in other languages, such as English or Russian, it can’t be fined for it.

Under the law, a position of Language Ombudsman was created, whose responsibility is to ensure the implementation of the law. The Office of the Language Ombudsman Taras Kremen is responsible for issuing fines for law violations.

If a complaint is filed, the office will give a 30-day notice to the business to eliminate violations. If a second complaint is filed, a fine will be issued. During recent interviews, Kremen stated that fines will be the last resort.

Language law

The law on the Ukrainian language has been causing debate ever since it was drafted.

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Many support the law as a way to strengthen the positions of the Ukrainian language, Ukraine’s only official language, while critics argue that it harms the interests of ethnic minorities in Ukraine.

In reality, the law doesn’t much change Ukraine’s established status quo in which Ukrainian, Russian, or English is used by mutual consent. 

The so-called “language law” was adopted by parliament on April 25, 2019, in the last weeks of the presidency of Poroshenko.

Just days before the law was passed, Poroshenko lost the presidential election to Volodymyr Zelensky in a landslide after building his campaign on accusations that his opponent is a pro-Russian candidate. Strengthening the Ukrainian language was a key component of Poroshenko’s re-election campaign. After the inauguration, Zelensky promised to review the language law, yet nothing followed.

Most of the language law came into force on July 16, 2019. It regulates the use of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life. 

The law is set to promote the Ukrainian language and decrease the influence of Russian which is spoken by around half of the population. 

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The law provides a 90% quota for Ukrainian-language content for national television and radio broadcasters, publishing houses are required to have at least 50% of their books in Ukrainian, Additionally, starting from 5th grade, all public education in Ukraine must be performed in Ukrainian.

The law also envisions the creation of free Ukrainian language courses for those who need assistance. However, this provision remains unaddressed, with the budget allocating no money for the establishment of such courses.

Criticism

Ukraine’s language law faced both internal and external opposition.

Pro-Russian politicians complain that the law excludes the Russian language from public life, while Hungary protests the Ukrainization of Ukrainian education.

According to Ukraine’s 2001 census, nearly 150,000 Ukrainian citizens identified Hungarian as their native language. Hungarian is widely spoken in Ukrainian territories bordering Hungary. The status of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine caused a row between the two neighboring countries.

Ukraine has accused Hungary of issuing Hungarian passports to Ukrainians and promoting Hungarian national parties in Ukraine. Contrary, Hungary is trying to overturn the language law norm that requires the Hungarian minority in Ukraine to enter Ukrainian language schools.

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According to the law, minorities can keep on learning their national languages in schools, yet after 5th grade, most courses must be taught in Ukrainian.

In December 2019, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe recommended Ukraine to pass a law on national minorities that would envision protection of their culture and language. Nothing followed.

In recent years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has blocked Ukraine’s cooperation with the European Union and NATO on multiple occasions. However, Hungary backtracked, allowing Ukraine to become NATO’s enhanced opportunity partner in June 2020.

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