Opinion: A European slap for Ukraine′s language law | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.10.2017
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Opinion: A European slap for Ukraine's language law

War and crisis have become the norm in Ukraine. The country is fighting for is existence in the the East. But Kyiv's new language law has unnecessarily created new enemies in the West, says DW's Christian F. Trippe.

Petro Poroshenko has mastered the art of performing on the international stage. On Thursday, the Ukrainian president addressed the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe and basically said what he always says when he is abroad: Ukraine is making headway in its reform efforts, although it is fighting on two fronts. Militarily it is battling Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region; and, well, things are difficult on the domestic reform front.

The Council of Europe swiftly confirmed Poroshenko's sentiment after he left Strasbourg. The vast majority of representatives decided to give Kyiv a large collective slap – over a reform law. Ukraine is fundamentally reshuffling its school system: modernizing it, increasing teacher pay and raising the number of hours students are required to take in important subjects. All of these measures would have been roundly applauded had it not been for one obscure article contained within the legislative package: Article 7 of the law regulates school language. The Council of Europe criticized the new law as it "does not provide adequate balance" between the official state language of Ukraine and that of national minorities.

Neighbors in an uproar

Prior to the Strasbourg announcement, the proposed law had already caused an outcry in Romania and Hungary, and somewhat less agitated criticism was also voiced by Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia. All of those countries are Ukraine's neighbors and all have sizable minority populations residing there. So what happened? The new law forbids the teaching of important subjects, such as history and physics, in minority languages at secondary schools. Only elementary schools are allowed to provide classes in Hungarian, Romanian or Russian.

Trippe Christian F. Kommentarbild App

DW's Christian Trippe

Selected classes at secondary schools may be taught in English or other official European Union (EU) languages, but the aim of the law is obvious. Speaking in Strasbourg, Andres Herkel, a liberal parliamentarian from Estonia, pointed out: It is "clear that the Russian-speaking minority will suffer most" under the law.  

In Moscow, from whence the unofficial war with Ukraine is being directed, Kyiv's enemies were rubbing their hands with glee. Both chambers of Russia's parliament were soon howling that the new law was an act of "genocide" – naturally one directed only at the country's Russian minority. Yet, the Kremlin was conspicuously reserved: it can afford to sit back and watch as EU member states Romania and Hungary attack Ukraine politically while decrying the moral injustice of the new law. The absurdity of the fact that these two countries should profit from the ineptitude of their eastern neighbor has the makings of a farce.

New wave of separatism?

The EU sees Bucharest as a symbol of corruption and poor governance, and Budapest has become Brussels' problem child because of its authoritarian tendencies. Observers are already warning that the new language law – should it remain – could fuel separatist movements in Western Ukraine. There are certainly enough nationalist agitators in those neighboring countries now upset enough to make that happen. They are simply waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

All is not yet lost, though. An international commission is currently assessing the precise effects of the new law; a final decision on the matter is not expected to come before December. Thus, Ukraine still has time to unwrap the controversial legislative package and reconfigure it. Despite the fact that the European spirit of fundamental freedoms doesn't seem to be blowing through Kyiv, perhaps a sober examination of a regional map will cause leaders there to realize that it is ignorant policy to unnecessarily turn neighbors into enemies.