Should Ukraine Allow Minorities to Study Their Mother Tongue

As a Bulgarian citizen and as a follower of events concerning Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture I learned that Ukraine’s Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) approved a bill on September 5 that “restructures Ukraine’s education system and specifies that Ukrainian must be the main language used in schools, rolling back the option for lessons to be taught in other languages,” as ABC News reported.

The article quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying that “the law is designed to “forcefully establish a mono-ethnic language regime in a multi-national state” and alleging that it “violates Ukraine’s constitution and Kiev’s international obligations.” Other countries that have people in Ukraine who define themselves of their nationalities – Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians alike, as well as Poland and Greece – urged Ukraine not to restrict education in these minorities’ mother tongues at school. Meanwhile, USA congratulated Ukraine on the passing of its education reform bill. Unian Information Agency provided more details about Ukraine’s education reform, including quoting it as stating that “students belonging to the national minorities of Ukraine are guaranteed the right to study in municipal institutions with the use of the language of a respective national minority along with the state language. This right shall be fulfilled through classes (groups) with instruction in the language of the corresponding national minority.” While this quote counters the narrative of Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and others, it is not immediately clear what Unian Information Agency means by the term municipal institutions.

The best reflection (common sense)

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, Ukraine is in its sovereign right to decide what is best for its educational system as long as it doesn’t encourage hate, destruction (including of science) and hostility toward certain groups of people. Minorities should not feel persecuted for not being able to study their respective mother tongue in schools as most of their offspring learns that language in early ages of their lives, especially when surrounded by their parents, friends and family who would communicate in that language. If they so much want to maintain their competence in their mother tongue, they could spend time on their own doing it.

What is right and what is wrong

Countries that have minorities that identify with their nationalities in Ukraine, as summarized above, and generally any country in the world, ideally should not intervene in Ukraine’s sovereign right to reform its educational system, especially when such a reform does not persecute anybody. The best approach to this reform is to first consult with Ukraine’s constitution, which everyone can download in English by clicking here. Article 10 of Ukraine’s constitution states the following:

The State language of Ukraine shall be the Ukrainian language.

The State shall ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine.

Free development, use, and protection of Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine shall be guaranteed in Ukraine.

The State shall promote the learning of languages of international communication.

The use of languages in Ukraine shall be guaranteed by the Constitution of Ukraine and shall be determined by law.


Following the language of the supreme law of the land of Ukraine above, it states that Russian and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine have protections guaranteed by the state. Those protections are further emphasized in Article 11, particularly at its end:

The State shall promote the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, its historical consciousness, traditions, and culture, as well as development of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine.

Article 53, which provides Ukraine’s framework for education is what would make any educational reform in Ukraine worth criticizing if it does not include education in the respective mother tongue for Ukrainian citizens who identify their nationality as different from the Ukrainian nationality. The end of Article 53 states the following:

Citizens belonging to national minorities shall be guaranteed, in accordance with law, the right to education in their native language, or to study their native language at the state and communal educational establishments or through national cultural societies.

Therefore, if the definition of municipal institution in the Unian quote in the second paragraph of this article does not include “state and communal educational establishments” (secondary education, vocational education and higher education alike), then any provision in Ukraine’s educational reform that excludes education in national minorities’ mother tongue in areas where these minorities reside is unconstitutional.

Ukraine’s census includes minorities and what each of them consider their own language. It is an old census – 2001 – and a new census is coming up in 2020 which, considering that it will likely not include Crimea due to its annexation to Russia as a result of Russian aggression in 2014, certain minority groups will see a substantial change in their percentage within the general Ukrainian population, as measured by the census. However, it goes to show how ethnically and nationally diverse Ukraine is and how many languages are, or at least constitutionally should be, taught in K-12 and at university level.

Some of the reported data was seemingly not accurately calculated. After I conducted some simple tests (see National and Ethnic Data tab) the percentage of Ukrainians was slightly underreported. However, keep in mind that, per a note on Ukraine’s census website “*) The table includes data about nationalities whose part in actual population of the region was not less than 0.2%.” The inaccuracies end up being around 0.3% (see row #24 of the National and Ethnic Data tab in my Excel spreadsheet) which, together with the fact that Georgians, Germans, Gagausians and others had their percentages rounded up implies that the note is accurate.


Ukraine is a very diverse country in terms of ethnicity and languages spoken within its territory, and this uniqueness of the country is also reflected in its constitution, the supreme law of any country that provides the framework for any legislation – whether discussed in the legislative body as a bill or passed by the legislature and signed into law by the executive branch of the central government. This research shows that if Ukraine’s education reform excludes teaching in national minorities’ mother tongue in secondary and higher education alike, it is unconstitutional and should be abolished. Therefore, reactions of expressing concern by governments of countries in the region that have national minority groups in Ukraine are justified.

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Filed under Politics, The Law

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