On July 16, the United Nations Security Council held a meeting on the topic of Ukraine’s new language law, which is intended to protect and advance the Ukrainian language in a country where Russian imperial and Soviet policies maintained the supremacy of the Russian language for more than a century. The law, one of the last acts of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before he left office in May, was set to go into effect on that same day.
The Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the U.K. claimed in a tweet that, under the new law, doctors and teachers wouldn’t be allowed to speak Russian.
That is false.
To clear up misunderstandings about the law, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry clarified what it really entails, including when it comes to the provision of medical care:
“At the request of a person seeking medical assistance or medical care, one’s personal treatment may also be provided in a language acceptable to the parties. In other words, in a case when a patient requests the doctor to conduct the reception in Russian and a doctor has no objections, a doctor may ensure the reception in Russian. Often this is what happens. However, if the doctor deliberately refuses to speak to Ukrainian-speaking patient in Ukrainian, in this case it may be the reason for the inspection, because it is about protecting the state language.”
The ministry also addressed the law as it relates to education:
“The law guarantees the rights of national minorities and indigenous peoples to use the languages of the respective national minorities and indigenous peoples, for pre-school and primary education, along with the state language, the language of the respective national minority of Ukraine, and the right to learn the languages of indigenous or national minorities in the institutions of general secondary education or through national cultural societies.”
Initially both Ukraine’s 2017 law on education and the new language law faced criticism over concern for the protection of minority languages. However, Ukraine adopted some recommendations of the Venice Commission in order to address these concerns. As the law has only gone into effect on July 16, it is impossible to say whether or not those provisions to protect national minorities’ linguistic rights will be adequate.
It is not altogether clear whether the law violates the Minsk II peace agreement for resolving the Russian-initiated conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Point 11 on the list of requirements refers to constitutional reform in Ukraine and a law on the “special status of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” both of which are partially occupied by Russia’s proxy forces and outside the control of Kyiv. A note on that point makes a reference to "the right to language self-determination." However, the Russian proxy forces that control the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” have not fulfilled other key provisions of the Minsk agreement, nor do they allow the Ukrainian citizens under their control to participate in Ukrainian politics via elections (one Minsk agreement provision calls for elections carried out under Ukrainian law), among other violations. A UK representative to the UN Security Council last week rejected "the tenuous link between the language law and the Minsk agreements.”
Yet, while Russian officials express concern over the status of minority languages in Ukraine, it is worth noting that, since 2017, Russia has passed education reforms that suppress the use and preservation of minority languages in Russia’s ethnic republics, including those in the Urals and North Caucasus.