Why all the fuss? Ukraine’s New Education Law

​Language expert Volodymyr Kulyk tells Marta Dyczok why Ukraine’s New Education Law is causing Controversy

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Marta Dyczok


Володимир Кулик

Why all the fuss? Ukraine’s New Education Law

Hello and welcome to this week’s Ukraine Calling programme. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, bringing you a roundup of the weekly news. With some culture highlights, and some music. Later in the show we’ll bring you a conversation with Dr Volodymyr Kulyk, expert on language and language attitudes in Ukraine. He’ll be answering questions on why the new Law on Education and the issue of language in schools has sparked controversy. But first, as always, the news.




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FEATURE INTERVIEW: Language expert Volodymyr Kulyk tells Marta Dyczok why Ukraine’s new Education Law is causing Controversy

Dyczok: Education laws don’t usually make it into the headlines. But for the past two weeks you’ve noticed Ukraine Calling has been reporting on the new education law that Ukraine has recently adopted. What has all this controversy been about? There’s a controversial language provision in it. I’m Marta Dyczok and with me to explain what this is all about is one of Ukraine’s top scholars on language, media and more Dr. Volodymyr Kulyk. He is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies and he has held prestigious fellowships and teaching position in the world’s top universities, most recently at Yale University. He has also written and published numerous articles and books, most recently a chapter in Harvard University Press The Battle for Ukrainian: a Comparative Perspective. His article is “Language Attitudes in Independent Ukraine.” He has published an article recently in Europe-Asia studies on national identity in Ukraine and the impact of the Euromaidan, language and identity in Ukraine after Euromaidan. So, we have somebody who really knows a lot about language issues.

Dr. Kulyk, thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us about this. Let’s start with these controversies all about why is this language provision in this new law getting so much attention in Ukraine and outside its borders? What is this all about?

Kulyk: Frankly, it was a bit surprising even to me. But it should not be surprising, because this new law reduces the use of the minority languages throughout education rather significantly, I would say even drastically. It makes a big change, in comparison to the law which was in force until recently. Ukraine had very generous provisions for the use of minority languages in education in primary and secondary schools and it was even not necessarily legislated that way. Even in higher education, in colleges there are languages other than Ukrainian. Mostly Russian had been used extensively.

Dyczok: And higher education…

Kulyk: I cannot say at this moment the exact wording for higher education. But let me start with the previous levels of education. Basically for schooling, everybody had a right to choose in which language to educate his or her children. It was basically a free choice. This was not only for people who traditionally lived in this country, or only people who belong to this particular minority group. Pretty much everybody could choose, even recent immigrants could decide that they want education in Russian. For example people coming from the Caucuses would want education in Russian, because they know it better than Ukrainian. That was exceptionally generous. In higher education, what was going in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, was that a professor would come into an auditorium and ask students which language they would prefer. If most of students preferred Russian, that was the chosen language of instruction.

That is now going to stop. The law clearly made Ukrainian the main language of education on all levels. It allows other languages to be used freely in preschool and elementary school, but starting with a secondary school Ukrainian will be the only language of instruction for all subjects. Except, of course, minority languages as subjects. Crimean Tatar or Russian language, or Hungarian language can be taught.

But there is also another provision, namely, for all official languages of the European Union. Several subjects can be taught in those languages, which also means languages of Ukraine’s significant minorities such as Polish, Bulgarian, Hungarian or Romanian, but remarkably not Russian. Basically this whole change from minority languages toward Ukrainian was primarily aimed at the use of Russian in schools because Russian was used very much in education including higher education. And the reliance on Russian meant that Ukrainian was not always at such levels of proficiency as to be used in other domains where graduates would come for work, in the workplace. That was the main preoccupation (concern). That Ukrainian was not properly taught and not sufficiently acquired, that the use of the Ukrainian language cannot be prescribed by other laws, for use in particular domains (such as the workplace).

Dyczok: Sorry to interrupt! When you say “extensive provisions” what exactly were those provisions? Did this mean people could have a higher education in Romanian or in Russian? Is that what the previsions were all about?

Kulyk: Yes, that’s exactly the point. The historical context is crucial. If you look at established traditional European nation states, there should not be any questions about inadequacy or appropriateness of this law. Of course, in all these states, the titular language, the majority language is the language of all social domains and the main language of education. English is the second language used in education in all these countries rather than their minority languages. It’s not about Breton in France, or Turkish in Germany. In most countries it’s not about traditional minority languages, which are taught only on these very limited territories where these minorities are living. It’s about a titular language plus increasing use of international languages, mainly English.

But in Ukraine the situation is different because of the post-imperial context and the legacy of the Russian and Soviet Empires, which gave the use of Russian in society incomparable (dominance) within these traditional nation states. Russian is still used in many regions, in many domains, more than Ukrainian. So it is not Russian that is formally a minority language. In recent legislation called the Regional Language Law, it is not Russian that is in danger or restricted, but Ukrainian.

The main goal of this legislation is to drastically extend the use of Ukrainian in education such fluency and proficiency of all graduates as to make it possible to use this language in all other domains. So graduates would not have an excuse that they have not mastered Ukrainian well enough to use it in the workplace, or in their capacity as public servants.

Here we have to distinguish between two main languages (or language categories). On the one hand, we have Russian, which formally is a minority language, but in fact is a majority language in many regions and in many domains, and is anything but in danger. On the other hand, there are minority languages, which are very significant in some regions, but clearly a minority language, like Romanian in Bukovyna in the Chernivtsi region, or Hungarian in TransCarpathia. The Crimean Tatar language used to be a significant language in Crimea, and it still is, but Crimea is not under the control of the Ukrainian state. Crimean Tatars in mainland Ukraine are rather dispersed, so it is not possible to provide them such scope of education as other minorities. But there are Hungarians in Bessarabia, there are Poles and Slovaks in TransCarpathia, 

Most notably Hungarians and Romanians, which had, and still have rather exceptional scope of education in their respective languages. They had several dozen secondary schools with education fully in Hungarian or Romanian. Preschool, primary school and secondary school. All subjects are taught in this language, and Ukrainian, English or German are foreign languages that are taught just as subjects. Which means Ukrainian is clearly taught inadequately, and knowledge of Ukrainian that graduates acquire during the school course is not enough for them to use that language. That is one argument that the Ukrainian state is making in response to criticism on the part of Hungarian and Romanian officials. So it is about your fellow Hungarians or Romanians who are citizens of Ukraine, and who need this knowledge of Ukrainian, sufficient to work, not just in these ethnic ghettos, not just to move across the border to Hungary or Romania to work there, but to be able to work in Ukraine.

Dyczok: Special subjects…

Kulyk: Yes, they will still be called languages – Hungarian, Russian, Romanian – but in practice they will have two languages in addition to English or another foreign language. On the primary level they will have only Romanian or Hungarian with Ukrainian as a subject. With an increased amount of time devoted to Ukrainian, to allow children to become proficient to some extent and from Grade 5, to switch most of subject to Ukrainian with Hungarian and Romanian languages as subjects. And with a few other subjects, which will be decided by the school administration, or province education to decide on specific subjects.

It could be the history of this ethnic group, or the geography of the region, maybe some other. I am not quite sure what would happen. Probably they will focus on those subjects, which are the most crucial for the preservation of their group identity. “Who we are,” that we are Romanians or Hungarians. We know who are ancestors are, we know our great writers. So literature, geography, history. But chemistry, math, computer science should be in Ukrainian because otherwise what happens is that they are simply unable to acquire this knowledge to be able to enter university. So some of them cheat, some of them acquire some Ukrainian, some of the get enrolled based on standard testing in their respective languages which was until recently allowed but it will not be the case from now. They struggled at university or they were unable to go to university. It was publicised that Trans Carpathia with its significant minority has the worst results in the standard independent testing across Ukraine. So it is not only about Hungarians. Ukrainians there are also underperforming. But Hungarians are a part of the situation. Very significant underperformance means they were actually discriminated against in access to higher education in Ukraine and for getting prestigious jobs.  So that should be corrected. But as I said, while this is a very important part of this problem it’s not only about that, it’s also about the Russian language, about making Russian speakers acquire Ukrainian and use Ukrainian much more than they have done so far.

Dyczok: The criticism that’s been coming from abroad has been, from what I’ve read, from Hungary and Romania, and yet you’ve pointed to the fact that this really, to a large degree, is about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Has there been criticism or commentary from Russia? How do you see the Russian language rights being protected while the Ukrainian affirmative-action language plan—which this law sounds to me like it is—how is that going to work in practice? 

Kulyk: Of course there has been criticism from Russia. But unlike the situation before the war, when such a criticism would be heeded and responded to in terms of accommodation or some kind of mitigation, now nobody actually listens to what Russia is saying because it is saying too many bad things about everything Ukrainian to continue paying attention.

And that’s a crucial difference. Such a law would be inconceivable before the war because precisely in view of Russia’s predictable criticism Ukrainian authorities would not dare to infringe so much on education in Russian. But now, they have a good moment because Russia is discredited. Whatever Russia is saying is not believed, even by most people speaking Russian in Ukraine.  In the international arena Russia is not believed either. So it’s the moment to do what Ukraine considers is right to do.

Of course there is the problem of how to treat Russian speakers in Ukraine. Not in view of what Russia is saying but in view of what these Russian speakers themselves want, what international organizations say and what the Ukrainian state is committed to do. And that’s a very significant moment. Legislators will have to be careful enough not to contradict directly the letter of international treaties and international documents that Ukraine entered into, such as the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities or the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages. So there is no direct contradiction to the letter of these documents. Something slightly contradictory is their speed of doing as much as possible for the protection of the minorities but even this can be countered by the mark that all these documents mention, that the protection of national minorities should not be harmful for the position of the majority languages, the official languages, as a unifying factor in society. So if the majority language is not—

Dyczok: Are those European conventions or Ukrainian conventions? What you just quoted.

Kulyk: No I mention both the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages, the two most important and politically relevant documents in this regard. Both mention that the state should protect national minorities. It should protect the right for a person to belong to a national minority, and the right of people speaking these minority languages. But both mention that it should not be to the detriment of the majority language, precisely because the majority language is a unifying factor in society. People could not belong together if they don’t have a language in common. And as I mentioned, many Hungarians and Romanians know very little Ukrainian and that’s the problem. They do not really belong and they cannot belong to the job market. They cannot belong significantly and adequately to the body politic. So that should be changed by means of education. But then you’ve got the Russian speakers. Because the languages are so close, Russian speakers understand Ukrainian. Not all of them can speak adequately for all positions but they of course understand, communicate and there is a flow of information. So that’s not a problem of understanding but that’s a problem of functioning in various domains and in various capacities. They should be able to do that. Many people are now saying that cashiers at supermarkets cannot serve people in Ukrainian because they do not know it properly.

But whose fault is that? Of course it’s partly the fault of those who hired them. But the problem of the workforce and the problem of employment for those people is that they are excluded from many positions because they do not know Ukrainian. So rather than discriminating against them now, something should be down at earlier levels in education to prepare them to work in various domains, for education in universities, and to enter into public service and service industries in various capacities and to be able to fully function in Ukraine.

Dyczok: Two more questions and I’ll let you decide which order to answer them in: Has there been a response from the European Union and evaluation of this latest Ukrainian education law? And does this law adequately protect Russian language rights i.e. will Russians, Russian speakers, ethnic Russian who want to have the level of Russian language literacy… will that be protected under this new law?

Kulyk: The Russian language will only be taught as a subject because Russian is not one of the official languages of the European Union. So that was a clear differentiation between the two, to exclude Russian to a greater extent than the Western European languages. Russian will still be taught as a subject so those who want it to be taught to their children will have this opportunity fully. And so in addition to Russian being available through the media and throughout many domains in Ukraine, knowledge of Russian will not be a problem.

Of course I assume, that in those regions where Russian is spoken widely in the street and in the workplace, then of course Russian will be taught much more than in those regions where Russian is marginal. It will be taught much less than before but it will be still much more than in most societies for their minority languages.

Ukraine will signal its change from a post-imperial context, where former colonial languages, metropolitan languages, dominate many prestigious domains. If you look at Africa and the position of French, for example, in Algeria or Morocco, and English in Malaysia or Singapore. It will be very different from those situations where the former colonial language is fully dominant long after its independence. In a more European context, the languages other than the majority language are used in education in some other domains but in the limited territories where these minorities are settled and much less than the majority language. So it’s a clear shift to where we belong: we do not belong to the post-colonial, post-imperial realm. We belong to Europe now. So that’s also a clear political message.

Dyczok: And has Europe spoken on this? Has Europe given an evaluation?

Kulyk: Yes that is what I was going to switch to. Ukraine made it very clear from the beginning—a very smart move I believe—that it is willing to submit this newly adopted law to the Council of Europe to its Venice Commission, which so far has been providing its opinion about various pieces of legislation including, at some point, about the language law in 2012. So that was already done. Now Ukraine is waiting for the Council of Europe to rule and to provide its opinion.

I think it would be very important for Ukrainian authorities to follow the advice and not to ignore it. Not just to demonstrate that we are going to listen to them, but really listen, really modify the legislation if that happens. And I believe that that would also disqualify the remarks and accusations from Budapest and Bucharest. So if European legal experts decide that the legislation is in line with European standards and international commitments then that’s fine. If its not, and Ukraine agrees to modify it, that will also be fine. That will clearly reveal that the criticism from Romania and Hungary is not about Ukraine’s violation of international standards but is about their nationalist ambitions. They want Ukraine to do what they themselves are not doing and they of course use this criticism, not so much just against Ukraine, but also in attempts to influence their own constituencies because the authorities are looking to the elections. They want to be more nationalist-sounding and more tough than the nationalist competitors. And that’s why they are so tough, because they want their constituents at home to believe that they are concerned about their compatriots abroad. That’s part of the story too.

I wanted to ask you how you, how do you see this actually working in practice? What do you see? Is this law going to be implemented? Is it going to be followed or is it just going to be on the books and people will still do things as business as usual?

Kulyk: Oh that is part of the problem, I actually wrote a blog on a critical website on that, so that’s my main issue with this law. As I said in the blog, education is already the most Ukrainianized domain. So there is a lot of Ukrainian in education but the problem is that it is not as needed in other domains so that they can push the speakers of other languages to properly learn Ukrainian. So that’s why there is this gap between what is on paper and what is in practice. And I’m afraid that if legislation for other domains is not adopted and implemented, this law will not be implemented, because there is just not enough incentive for learning Ukrainian properly.

Dyczok: So it has to be a comprehensive approach rather than just one.

Kulyk: Yes, so that’s what I’m saying. Its good that you adopted that law—and again its not only about the language article. Its about education reform more generally—and it would be stupid, for example, for Poroshenko to veto this law because of this one article when, in fact, so much depends on that educational reform. But on the other hand, the timing is kind of inappropriate. So I believe that a general language law instead of this Kivalov-Kolesnichenko should have been adopted earlier, and then education would have been just one part of that. Because there is no message that Ukrainian is needed in society. There is just the message that Ukrainian is needed on the radio and television and there is no message that Ukraine is needed in education. So what is new? Quotas on television existed before 2012. A law on education with Ukrainian in there existed long before. What we need is a law that Ukrainian would be needed for services, that Ukrainian would be needed for computers, or that Ukrainian would be needed for businesses, but that’s not happening so far. That’s the problem.

Dyczok: So politics and language, two hot topics. Next time we have you on the show we’ll talk about the language law. Thank you very much for your conversation. Thank you for explaining all those details and putting things in context. We’ve been speaking Dr. Volodymyr Kulyk who is the senior research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at Ukraine’s Academy of Science. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio. Thanks for listening!

Ukrainian opposition blocks the presidium of Verkhovna Rada, 5 October 2017 Facebook Hanna Hrabarska


Judicial Reform

It has been a week of much legislative activity, and with media attention focussed on the Parliament.

Several changes occurred in the past week in regards to the ongoing reform of Ukraine’s judiciary system. Ukraine’s Parliament introduced e-litigation to the Civil Procedure Code. This system, which will come into affect one year after it is brought into law, will include an automated electronic judge selection procedure to increase impartiality and will allow Ukrainians to file electronic forms using their electronic signature. Related to this, Ukraine’s High Council of Justice appointed 111 judges to the new Supreme Court. Not without controversy, the civil watchdog association, the Public Integrity Council, vetoed 25 of these judges and another 60 judges have had negative information submitted against their appointment.

Pension Reform

This week on October 3rd,  the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law on pension reform. This means that as of October 2017, pensions in Ukraine will be recalculated according to updated salary indexes. Among other changes, there will be an increase in the minimal period of pensionable service from 15 to 25 years, starting as of 1 January 2018. The reform of the pension system has been one of the key demands from the International Monetary Fund for Ukraine to receive the next tranche of its loan program.

Donbas Reintegration Bills

On October the 5th, the Ukrainian Parliament, the  Verkhovna Rada, failed to pass a vote on a Bill concerning the Reintegration of the Donbas, due to lack of consensus among the parties. Tensions ran high during the debate, many deputies who disagreed with the proposal stood up to block the speaker’s rostrum and a tussle broke out. After negotiations with party leaders, all provisions on of the Minsk Agreements on Donbas settlement were removed from the Bill. On the following day  Parliament resumed, and the deputies voted in the Bill on Donbas Reintegration, which determines Russian Federation to be an aggressor state, and defines its temporary occupation of territories in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as an illegitimate act.

Further EU Sanctions Against Russia

The European Union discussed increasing personal and economic sanctions against Russia in an October 5, 2017. The European Parliament proposed the sanctions in response to arrests and trials of journalist Mykola Semena and Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov. A draft of the resolution is expected in the upcoming week.

The US State Department also issued a statement concerning the most recent of these trials, which was the sentencing of Ilmi Umerov. This statement condemned the unjust treatment of Umerov and called on the Russian occupation Authorities to immediately release him and vacate his conviction.

In Crimea

This week there were further detainments of Crimean tartars in Russian-occupied Crimea.  On October 2nd, 2017, four members of Tablighi Jamaat, a  Sunni Muslim movement, were apprehended on allegations of extremism and their homes were searched. Activists and lawyers in Crimea have protested this and called it a discriminatory campaign targeting Crimean Tartar Muslims.

The War

The last two days of September and the beginning of October were marked with constant low-intensity fights between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian army. According to official reports of the Ukrainian side, over the last week pro-Russian forces were actively using grenade launchers and mortars against Ukrainian position. On October 3rd and 4th, for the first time since the beginning of the “back to school” ceasefire agreement, pro-Russian forces have reportedly shelled Ukrainian positions using BM-21 multiple rocket launchers. Residential areas of two settlement – Zaytseve and Mariinka, Donetsk region – were shelled by pro-Russian forces on October 1st and 2nd. There were no registered casualties among civilians. In total, over the last week 1 Ukrainian serviceman was killed and 11 wounded.

On a more hopeful note, the number of civilians killed and wounded in the month of September has decreased significantly, according to Ambassador Sajdik, Special Representative in the OSCE and in the Trilateral Contact Group.  The UN reported that the number was 2 dead and 16 wounded, the lowest record for the whole conflict period. This can be attributed to the efforts of further ceasefire attempts, one announced for the beginning of the school year, and one announced earlier in the summer, as the harvest ceasefire.

More Ukrainian Abductions

Sadly another two Ukrainians have vanished along the Russian border in the Sumy oblast, a region that is notably not in the conflict zone. Communication was lost with two guards around 8pm on the evening of October 3, 2017. While their actual location is still unknown, Russian mass media have reported the detention of two alleged “transgressors” who have identified themselves Ukrainian border guards from Sumy oblast.

Assistance in Cyber Security

On September 29, 2017 The United States has pledged to provide over $5 million to Ukraine for cyber security assistance, in order to help Ukraine prevent and respond to cyber-attacks. The first ever “United States-Ukraine Bilateral Cyber Dialogue” concluded with the agreement to increase Ukraine’s ability to protect their infrastructure and military systems from attack. While cyber-security has been a growing topic in Western media over the past year, fear of cyber-attacks in Europe was amplified after December 2015 when a Russian-based cyber attack caused blackouts across Ukraine.


This month there is a fresh new exhibition at the Art Arsenal called the Festival of Young Artists. And it is literally just that: young artists were asked to reflect on the idea of change as it is seen in contemporary life. Then the most interesting 67 projects were selected for the exhibition.

One of those projects, although part of the Festival, physically ended up in a completely different gallery, the National Art Museum of Ukraine. All through the halls of the Permanent Collection of the National Art Museum, the artist, Daniil Galkin has installed railings in inappropriate or even surreal locations. It draws attention to the lack of handicapped access in urban spaces, and challenges the viewer to think about accessibility.

War is a time of destruction. It is also a time of creation. Poets in Ukraine have been writing since the war began. A collection of English language translations of these poems was recently published by Academic Studies Press, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky. It includes works by Yury Izdryk, Serhiy Zhadan, Marjana Savka, Vasyl Holoborod’ko, and others. We’ll post a link to the book on our website. 


Autumn is upon us. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler. To remind you of the summer heat, here’s a song about the July pagan festival Kupala by the band Tsviakh (which means The Nail.) They’re from Novovolyns’k. Enjoy!


Next week we’ll look at how academic exchanges have opened up Ukraine to the world and the world to Ukraine. Our feature interview will be Marta Kolomayets, the director of the Fulbright Office in Ukraine which is celebrating it’s 25th year of operating in the country. And we’ll have  more news, culture and music, so tune in again next week for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you so Write to us at: [email protected]. I’m Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

News by Oksana Smerechuk and Caroline Gawlik. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Info about Crimea by Elvira Saale. Culture and Music by Marta Dyczok. Interview transcribed by Caroline Gawlik, Ilona Sviezhentseva, and Larysa Iavorenko. Sound engineers Andriy Izdryk and Adam Courts. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva. Special thanks for CHRW Western Student Radio and Richard Raycraft.