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Europe

Hungary threatens Ukraine's EU ties over new education law

Ukraine's new education law aims to boost the role of the country's official language. Neighbors say that it threatens minority rights. Hungary is attacking Kyiv – threatening to block its rapprochement with the EU.

Ukraine's education reform bill that went into effect in late September was long overdue. A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union it was determined that the country's school system must finally be modernized and institutions given more independence. Experts and parents' groups have been working alongside politicians on the new law for years. When it was finally passed, parents and young teachers were ecstatic.

The ticking bomb: Language

Yet that ecstasy was short-lived. After the bill went into law, Kyiv's problems with almost all of its neighbors escalated. The reason: Article 7 of the law, which dictates that classes must be held in Ukrainian from middle school onward, and that only selected secondary school and university courses will be allowed to be taught in English or other official EU languages. Only elementary schools are allowed to conduct classes in the languages of the country's minority populations.

Those in favor of the law say it will strengthen the role of the Ukrainian language in the eastern and southern parts of the country. As a result of Soviet era settlement policies, those areas, particularly cities, are still dominated by Russian-speaking minorities. Until now, Russian was used by teachers in about 10 percent of Ukraine's schools. This new law will put an end to that. The measure is Kyiv's answer to the fact that its eastern neighbors are exploiting language for propaganda purposes. Russia justified its annexation of Crimea and its incursion into eastern Ukraine by claiming it needed to "protect Russian-speaking citizens." That claim, however, rings quite hollow when one considers that there was only one single Ukrainian-language school in Crimea at the time of the invasion – all the rest were Russian-speaking

Ukraine Berehove (Rovas Foundation)

More than half the population of the western Ukrainian city of Berehove speak Hungarian as a first language

Trouble with the neighbors

Although Kyiv was focused solely on Russia when it passed the law, the move has backfired with unforeseen repercussions. It was not only the Kremlin that complained about the measure, foreign ministers from Hungary, Poland, Romania and Moldova also decried what they saw as a violation of the rights of their citizens living in Ukraine to be taught in their mother tongue. Russians make up the largest foreign minority in Ukraine, but Romanians and Hungarians are right behind with populations of around 150,000 people each. Whereas Bucharest has decided to speak directly with Kyiv about the issue, Budapest has not held back its criticism. "It is totally unacceptable that in the 21st century, schools on Europe's doorstep must be closed and teachers fired simply because they teach in the language of minorities. Minorities are being deprived of their rights," said a furious Peter Szijjarto (pictured at top), Hungary's foreign minister, as he met with compatriots in western Ukraine on October 10.  

Acting on Romania and Hungary's initiative, the Council of Europe has called for Ukraine to work with minorities to come up with a solution in accordance with European norms. Hungary, above all, seems quite eager to escalate the fight. For years, Hungarians living in neighboring states, among them Romania and Serbia, have been an integral part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's political base. He has distributed hundreds of thousands of passports to people with Hungarian roots living abroad. This is also the case in western Ukraine. Kyiv's incompetence in dealing with minorities is just one more opportunity for the nationalist Orban to publicly showcase his protection of Hungarians abroad.

And if that were not enough: Although the new language law is not scheduled to go into effect until 2020, Hungary's government is already threatening to block any Ukrainian attempts at rapprochement with the EU, and has gone so far as to call for revising the bloc's Association Agreement with Kyiv. A spokesperson in Brussels also confirmed to DW that after much Hungarian insistence, the issue was put on the agenda for the upcoming October 16 meeting of the EU Council of Foreign Ministers.

Straßburg Europarat | Petro Poroschenko, Präsident Ukraine (Reuters/C. Hartmann)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has told the Council of Europe he is ready for dialogue

Lack of enthusiasm among EU partners

That said, the willingness of many EU member states to go along with Hungary's pugnacious approach is limited. "Threats and blockades don't help anyone," was the message from the German Foreign Ministry. The first order of business would be to open dialogue with Kyiv and pressure leaders to address the issue of abiding by common standards when it comes to the dealing with minorities and their languages. Representatives in Berlin are pleased that Kyiv submitted the controversial legislative package to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for review. The commission assesses, at the request of member states, whether individual laws conform to European human rights standards and the fundamental principles of rule of law. Berlin, however, also acknowledged that Ukraine was rather late in arriving at this moment of introspection. Talks with the Council of Europe, it is said, could have begun much sooner.

Budapest won't let go   

Nevertheless, Brussels-based political scientist Paul Ivan has no doubts that Hungary is serious about blocking Ukraine in the EU. Ivan says that while Kyiv certainly bears some responsibility for the situation, Budapest's tough language has much more to do with upcoming elections at home than anything else. "The country's most important opposition party is even more radical than the current government when it comes to the topic of Hungarian minorities abroad," he told DW. The far-right Jobbik party is just behind Orban's Fidesz in opinion polls, and has taken to calling the prime minister's party "traitors" for supposedly being too timid abroad.

Meanwhile, Kyiv is in damage control mode. On October 11, President Petro Poroshenko traveled to Strasbourg to explain Ukraine's position to the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. On October 12, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin traveled to Budapest and then directly to Bucharest.

The Venice Commission is expected to present its opinion on the new language law in December. Poroshenko has said he is willing to present the commission's suggested improvements directly to Ukraine's parliament to put them to a vote. The topic will no doubt cause a lot of headaches until then – not only in Kyiv, but also in Brussels and Berlin.

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