In May, Volodymyr Kulyk*, gave a lecture at Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the George Washington University discussing a controversial 2017 education reform policy eliminating the use of minority languages in higher education in Ukraine. The law quickly received criticism from neighboring states and, at a time of heightened nationalism in Ukraine, there are several domestic and international pressures influencing the law and its implementation.

Image result for Volodymyr Kulyk
Volodymyr Kulyk

In his lecture, Dr. Kulyk began by highlighting the origins of the policy’s controversy and several important figures. The law is rooted in Ukraine’s continuing goals to westernize and come closer to the European Union. In a country where roughly 65% of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as their native tongue, with the others speaking a myriad of second languages, Ukraine is in need of a strong education system to assist in modernization and structured learning into the tertiary system and beyond. 

The law plans to implement certain actions starting with the dismantling of all minority language secondary schools in Ukraine. Elementary schools can continue to operate in their respective language(s), and the indigenous Crimean Tatars can continue to use their language at any capacity. Although, in light of what has been reported on in the news as the Russian occupation, this new found autonomy is uncertain.

Approximately 91% of minority language speakers in Ukraine speak Russian, and due to clear conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, an opposition argument to Ukraine’s attempt to phase out Russian language education is frowned upon. Hungarian and Romanian (5% and 4% of the minority language population, respectively) reflect a different argument to the policy. Hungary fervently opposed the new education law and demands full minority language education. This opposition puts Ukraine in a tough place with the understanding that Hungary (an EU member state) can deny Ukrainian membership. Dr. Kulyk pointed out that many ethnically Hungarian Ukrainians would receive education in Ukraine and then move to Hungary afterwards, creating a conflict of interest for Hungary.

Dr. Kulyk extrapolates on many of these policy, cultural, and linguistic conflicts within this issue, but the larger discussion he points to is how this law be implemented. In a somewhat unstable and relatively young democracy, a new language policy will come at a large financial cost, assimilation concerns, and political controversy that may deter a smooth transition. With that, Dr. Kulyk explains that this law seeks to provide for greater efficiency in education, and then specialization, and not create a nationalizing movement. 

When asked what linguists abroad could do to advocate against the new policy or for minority languages in Ukraine, Dr. Kulyk reiterated this uncertainty of implementation, but also the growing discussion of school funding and the compromise of primary vs secondary school education that could allow for some linguistic autonomy in the country. However, it’s clear that Ukraine is passionate about creating a unified, more efficient education system to springboard its democratization, and that this should not be confused with an ethno-nationalistic, repressive policy.

*Head Research Fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. 


By Christopher von Claparede-Niemann
Student at the George Washington University
International Affairs and Russian Area Studies