Language policy in Ukraine

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Language policy in Ukraine is based on its Constitution, international obligations, and since 16 July 2019 the law "On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language"  [ uk ] . From 2012 until February 2018, the language policy of Ukraine was also based on the law "On the principles of the State language policy"  [ uk ] (before 2012, the 1989 law "On the languages in the Ukrainian SSR" was in force). [1]


The Ukrainian language is the State language of Ukraine. According to the article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the State has to ensure the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine. Other languages spoken in Ukraine are guaranteed constitutional protection. Russian is recognized as the language of a national minority. [2]

A 2012 law, called the law "On the principles of the State language policy" gave the status of regional language to Russian and other minority languages. It allowed the use of minority languages in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the national minorities exceed 10% of the population. [3] [4] The law was used mostly in Ukraine's southern and eastern regions, where predominant or significant parts of the population speak Russian as their first language. [4] Three minor settlements did the same for Hungarian, Moldovan and Romanian. [5] Ukrainian remained the only official country-wide language. [4] Introduction of the law was supported by the governing Party of regions and opposed by the opposition parties. According to its opponents the law undermined and supplanted the role of the Ukrainian language, and violated Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution. [6] [7] [8]

The bill was adopted amid fistfights in the Ukrainian Parliament building on 3 July 2012, and the opposition said that the procedure of adopting the law was not respected. [9] [10] The law came into force on 10 August 2012. [3] Since then various cities and regions of Ukraine declared Russian a regional language in their jurisdictions. [5] Other cities and regions declared their opposition to this law. [11] Immediately after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, on 23 February 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to repeal the law. This decision was vetoed by the acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who instead ordered drafting of a new law to "accommodate the interests of both eastern and western Ukraine and of all ethnic groups and minorities." [12] [13] However, in October 2014 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine started reviewing the constitutionality of the law, [14] and on 28 February 2018 it ruled the law unconstitutional. [15]

In April 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted a new law, "On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language"  [ uk ]. On 16 June 2019, the law entered into force.


Percentage of native speakers of Russian from the 2001 census. Russian is a regional language in 13 regions (shaded) with 10% or higher. Ukraine census 2001 Russian.svg
Percentage of native speakers of Russian from the 2001 census. Russian is a regional language in 13 regions (shaded) with 10% or higher.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, the Russian language has dwindled, but remains one of the two most used languages for business, legal proceedings, science, artistry, and many other spheres of everyday life. According to the 2001 census, 67.5% of the citizens of Ukraine regarded Ukrainian as their native language, with Russian being considered the native language for another 29.6%. Various other languages constitute the remaining 2.9%. [16] During the Soviet era, both Russian and Ukrainian had official status as State languages of the Ukrainian SSR. [17]

Supporters of the bill argued it would make life easier for Russian-speaking Ukrainians. [18] Opponents fear adoption of Russian as a minority language could spread rapidly, challenging Ukrainian and causing splits between eastern and western Ukraine. [19] In practice Russian is already used widely[ specify ] in official establishments in Ukraine. [20]

According to the article #27 (2nd part) it is necessary to translate Ukrainian place names into other languages using only Ukrainian transcription (the transcription of the state language).

On 9 February 2013 the authors of the 2012 language law, Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko, were awarded the "Medal of Pushkin" by Russian President Vladimir Putin for "great contribution to the preservation and promotion of the Russian language and culture abroad". [21]

Bill "On the principles of the State language policy"


"On the principles of the state language policy" [22]
Verkhovna Rada
Signed8 August 2012
Signed by Viktor Yanukovych [22]
Effective 10 August 2012
Legislative history
Bill Bill n. 9073, "On the principles of the state language policy" [23]
Introduced byKolesnychenko and Kivalov
First reading 5 June 2012 [22]
Second reading 3 July 2012 [22]
28 February 2018
Status: Repealed

V. Kolesnichenko, one of the authors of the law, refers to its support from various higher education bodies, scientists and NGOs. [24]

Some say that the bill contradicts the Constitution of Ukraine, violates the Budget Code, and aims to annihilate the Ukrainian language. It suffered a criticism in the conclusions of state authorities and their departments: the Main Scientific-Expert Bureau of the Ukrainian Parliament (23 May 2012), [25] the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Spirituality (September 23, 2011), the Parliamentary Committee on Budget (3 November 2011), Ministry of Finance (9 September 2011), the Ministry of Justice (27 September 2011). [26] The bill also failed to obtain the support of the specialized institutions of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine: the Linguistics Institute, the Institute of the Ukrainian Language, the Institute of political and ethno-national researches, the Shevchenko Institute of Literature, the Institute of State and Law, the Ukrainian linguistic-informational Fund, the Philology Institute of Kiev University, and the Academy of Sciences of the High School of Ukraine. [26]

Opinion adopted by the Venice Commission

In December 2011 the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued its Opinion [27] on the draft law. According to Ukrayinska Pravda, the Venice Commission did not notice in the draft law of Kolesnichenko any guarantees of the protection of the Ukrainian language [28] and later came to a decision that the bill is another "pre-election tool" for the Party of Regions. [29] [ unreliable source? ] V. Kolesnichenko, one of the authors of the law, claimed the 2011 analysis of the Venice Commission was "generally supportive". [30] The opponents noted that the analysis contained strong criticism, specifically about the failure to protect the role of Ukrainian as the State language. [31] [32]

In its Opinion, the Venice Commission stated, among other theses: [27]

It seems questionable to the Venice Commission that the parallel use of the State language and regional and minority languages, and in practice mostly the Russian language in large spheres of public life and not only on a local level, can still be considered to be in compliance with article 10 of the Constitution, as clarified by the Constitutional Court.

the present draft does no longer formally focus on the Russian language, as the references to this language are almost always replaced by a reference to "the regional or minority language". This equalization of the treatment of the Russian language to the treatment of the regional or minority languages appears to be beneficial, in certain areas of public life, to other regional or minority languages (Para. 64)

[…] the question remains whether [...] there are sufficient guarantees, in the current Draft Law, for the consolidation of the Ukrainian language as the sole State language, and of the role it has to play in the Ukrainian multilinguistic society. The Venice Commission can only reiterate its call... for a fair balance between the protection of the rights of minorities, on the one hand, and the preservation of the State language as a tool for integration within society, on the other hand. (Para. 66)

The recognition of linguistic freedom in the media and in the cultural area could moreover, due to market considerations, result in the dominance of the Russian language.

The Opinion also made other observations and proposals of change. It was of the view that "further improvements, increased guarantees and more substantial changes to the normative content of the Draft should be introduced..." [27]

Fight in parliament

Prior to 24 May 2012 there were rumors that a revision of the legislation on languages would take place in parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) and that the Secretary of National Security and Defense would attend the session. [33] Some 1,000 protesters gathered just outside the Verkhovna Rada building setting up another tent city. [34] State law enforcement warned the protesters not to establish a tent city. [35] The protesters were yelling in Ukrainian "Get busy with work, not a tongue" (implying the law draft on languages). [36] Some posters carried the slogan: "The problem is in poverty, not in language". [37]

At the evening session the parliamentary opposition in the Verkhovna Rada (BYuT and Our Ukraine) blocked the main tribune in parliament as some representatives from the Party of Regions surrounded the presidium. The speaker was forced to announce a break in the session. After the break Member of Parliament Vyacheslav Kyrylenko read a statement of the united opposition not to conduct any hearings regarding language issues. After the law draft #10154 "On the state language of Ukraine" was not adopted onto the daily agenda, Kyrylenko withdrew his draft #9059 "Prohibition of narrowing the sphere of use of Ukrainian language" from a revision, while Kolesnichenko gave a presentation on his draft #9073. The head of the Committee On Issues of Culture and Spirituality Volodymyr Yavorivsky disclosed the decision of the committee to reject the bill #9073 as it was the decision of the committee's majority. He pointed to the fact that the law draft in fact will introduce a bilingual situation in number of regions. However, after a review the bill was supported by the parliamentary majority which showed its support in adopting two state languages: Ukrainian and Russian. The parliamentary minority and the deputy group "Reforms for the Future" stayed in opposition to the bill. Parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn was forced to hastily close [38] the session as further discussion descended into another fight [39] leaving some members of parliament injured. [40] [41]

The Party of Regions released a statement to the press where it accused the opposition of denying the adaptation of a bill that protects some constitutional rights of millions of citizens of Ukraine. [42] PoR leader in parliament Yefremov promised to revisit the issue once everything is stable. [43]


The bill was to come into force only after it was signed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the Chairman of Parliament. [4] But the Chairman of Parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn tendered his resignation on 4 July 2012. [4] However, the Verkhovna Rada twice held votes of confidence in the speaker, and did not accept his resignation. [44] On 31 July Lytvyn signed the law. [44] The bill was signed by President Yanukovych on 8 August 2012. [45] The law came into force on 10 August 2012. [3] Since then various Ukrainian cities and regions have declared Russian a regional language in their jurisdictions, these being the municipalities of Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhia, Sevastopol, Dnipropetrovsk, Luhansk and Krasny Luch; and the Oblasts of Odessa, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk. [5] Hungarian has been made a regional language in the town of Berehove in the Zakarpattia Oblast, Moldovan in the village of Tarasivtsi (Chernivtsi Oblast), [5] and Romanian in the village of Bila Tserkva; also in the Zakarpattia Oblast. [5] These languages will now be used in city/Oblast administrative office work and documents. [5] As of September 2012 there were no plans for such bilingualism in Kiev. [46] Chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea Volodomyr Konstantinov stated in March 2013 that the August 2012 law had changed nothing in Crimea. [47]

Repeal of the law

On February 23, 2014, the second day after the flight of Viktor Yanukovich, while in a parliamentary session, a deputy from the "Batkivshchina" party, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, moved to include in the agenda a bill to repeal the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy". The motion was carried with 86% of the votes in favour—232 deputies in favour vs 37 opposed against the required minimum of 226 of 334 votes. The bill was included in the agenda, immediately put to a vote with no debate and approved with the same 232 voting in favour. The bill would have made Ukrainian the sole state language at all levels. [12] [48] Still, all the minority languages (including Russian) remain explicitly protected under article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution. The repeal would also bring back into force the previous law on languages, which was in place in Ukraine for 23 years before July 2012 and was regulating the use of the minority languages. According to Uilleam Blacker, the repeal bill contained no specific threat to the Russian language. [49] [50]

However the move to repeal the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy" provoked negative reactions in Crimea and in some regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine. It became one of the topics of the protests against the new government approved by the parliament after the flight of Viktor Yanukovich. [51] In this context, the next major development was the Crimean crisis.[ citation needed ]

Passage of the repeal bill was met with regret by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe. [52] The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities expressed concern over possible further unrest. He also proposed to give advice and facilitate discussions on new legislation, declaring that "we must avoid the mistakes made last time [in 2012] when unbalanced legislation was adopted without a proper dialogue in the Verkhovna Rada." [53] The bill was also criticized by the Ambassador for Human Rights of the Russian foreign ministry. [54] Bulgarian and Romanian foreign ministers evaluated it as a step in the wrong direction, [55] and the Greek foreign minister expressed disappointment. [56] The Hungarian foreign ministry expressed serious concerns, noting that the decision "could question the commitment of the new Ukrainian administration towards democracy". [57] The Polish foreign minister called it a mistake. [58]

After urgently ordering a working group to draft a replacement law on February 27, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov declared on 3 March that he will not be signing the repeal bill until a replacement law is adopted. [59] [60] Since then the repeal bill is not signed, but not vetoed by the President, its current status is "ready for sign". [61]

On 7 April 2014 former BYuT leader Yulia Tymoshenko stated she supported the 2012 language law. [62]

On 3 November 2014, newly elected president Petro Poroshenko declared that the language policy in Ukraine will be amended. [63]

On 10 July 2014 57 parliamentary deputies appealed the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to review the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy". [14] On 10 October 2014 the court opened the proceedings on the constitutionality of the law. [14] On 14 December 2016 the Constitutional Court ended the oral proceedings and on 13 January 2017 moved to the closed part of the process. [14] On 28 February 2018 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruled the law unconstitutional. [15]

2016 law

In 2016, a New rule came into force requiring Ukraine's radio stations to play a quota of Ukrainian-language songs each day. The law also requires TV and radio broadcasters to ensure 60% of programs such as news and analysis are in Ukrainian. [64]

Ukraine's 2017 Education Law

Ukraine's 2017 education law will make Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade on, although it allows instruction in other languages as a separate subject, [65] [66] [67] to be phased in in 2023. [68] Since 2017, the Hungary–Ukraine relations rapidly deteriorated over the issue of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. [69] According to the New Europe :

The latest row between Kiev and Budapest comes on the heels of a bitter dispute over a decision by Ukraine’s parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – to pass a legislative package on education that bars primary education to all students in any language but Ukrainian. The move has been widely condemned by the international community as needlessly provocative as it forces the historically bilingual population of 45 million people who use Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably as mother tongues to become monolingual. Furthermore, the large minorities of Hungarians, Jews, Poles, Tatars, Gypsies, Romanians, Caucasians, and Gagauz generally speak and receive some formal or informal education in their own national languages, all of which will be adversely affected by the new draconian language statutes. [70]

Lviv Oblast

Unian reported that "A ban on the use of cultural products, namely movies, books, songs, etc., in the Russian language in the public has been introduced" in the Lviv Oblast in September 2018. [71] Critics[ who? ] called the law ill-defined, illegal, and unconstitutional, and a successful January 2019 court challenge by the Chuhuiv Human Rights Group was dismissed on technical grounds in May, and could lead to a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights. [72]

Law "On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language"

First vote

"On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language"
Prezident pidpisav zakon pro derzhavnu movu; Mova - tse platforma, na iakii buduiet'sia natsiia i derzhava 1.jpg
Poroshenko signing the law.
Verkhovna Rada
Signed15 May 2019
Signed by Petro Poroshenko
Effective 16 July 2019 [73]
Legislative history
Bill 5670-d, "On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language"
First reading 4 October 2018
Second reading 25 April 2019
Status: In force

On 4 October 2018, the Ukrainian parliament voted with a majority of 261 MPs in the first reading of a new language law (bill n. 5670-d, "On provision of the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language" [74] ). Thereafter, the bill "was prepared for second reading for about four months. During this time, the Verkhovna Rada's committee on culture and spirituality worked out over 2,000 amendments to the document that were proposed by people's deputies. In particular, the document proposes creating the national commission on the standards of the state language and introducing the post of commissioner for the protection of the state language. Lawmakers started considering the document at second reading on February 28. The Verkhovna Rada continue[d] to review amendments to the bill during March 12-15 [2019]." [75] The Council of Europe asked the Verkhovna Rada to postpone the adoption of the bill until the post-election period. [76]

Second vote and signature

On 25 April 2019, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the law. [77] [78] However, on the same day Pro-Russian members of the Ukrainian Parliament blocked the chairman, Andriy Parubiy, from signing it by introducing two draft resolutions to repeal the law. "If parliament d[id] not support these resolutions, [Parliament chairman] Andriy Parubiy ha[d] the right to sign the law and forward it to the President of Ukraine to get his signature on it." [79] In total, four appeals to cancel the law were submitted, and it was planned that the parliament would vote on those on 14 May 2019. Parubiy declared that after the parliament will have rejected those appeals, he will sign the law and that the Ukrainian President will sign it "without delay." [80] Patriarch Filaret and former Ukrainian President Yushchenko were present in the parliament during the vote. [81] [82]

Poroshenko called the adoption of the law by the Ukrainian parliament "a historic decision" [83] and said he would sign the law as soon as he receives it from the parliament. [84] Poroshenko also said that the law "would not have been approved without Andriy Parubiy". [85]

Parliament chairman Parubiy signed the law on 14 May 2019, after the four draft bills to cancel the bill n. 5670-d were rejected by the Ukrainian parliament. [86] [87] Parubiy said that the law "will be signed by the president of Ukraine in the coming hours or days." [86] On 15 May 2019, President Poroshenko, in his last week in office, signed the law. [88] [89]

Poroshenko showing the law signed. Prezident pidpisav zakon pro derzhavnu movu; Mova - tse platforma, na iakii buduiet'sia natsiia i derzhava 2.jpg
Poroshenko showing the law signed.


The law regulates the Ukrainian language "in the media, education, and business. It aims to strengthen the language’s role in a country where much of the public still speaks Russian." [90]


Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said the law was "unacceptable" and part of an "anti-Hungarian policy". [ citation needed ]

The European Commission intends to study and give its assessment to the law. [91] On 22 May 2019, the Chair of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked the Venice Commission to analyze the law. [92]

The court of Kiev declined the appeal from an NGO to ban Andriy Parubiy from signing the law and to ban the law's publication. [93]

Russia asked the President of the UN Security Council to convene a meeting over the adoption by Ukraine's parliament of the law. [94]

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Further reading

Important documents