Neighbors of Ukraine, values of Europe

Security and good neighborly relations are a common interest for the states surrounding Ukraine

Attila Dabis
19 March 2014

The internal strife that struck Ukraine after former president Viktor Yanukovych announced last November that he was suspending preparations for signing an association agreement with the European Union resulted in the death of dozens of protesters; led to a shift in the executive power, labeled by the Russian Federation as a coup; and prompted a counter-reaction in the form of increased Russian military activity in the Crimean peninsula, labeled by most western powers as an act of aggression. One of the first steps of the newly formed government that succeeded the Yanukovych administration was to abolish the language law adopted less than two years earlier.

The “2012 Law on the principles of the state language policy” (hereinafter language law) intended to improve and expand the linguistic rights of the regional and minority languages before courts, in schools, and in public institutions. With the exception of the parts referring to the use of the only official state language, Ukrainian, this law applied for areas of Ukraine where the percentage of representatives of persons belonging to a given national minority exceeded 10% of the total population of an administrative unit.

The implementation of this Act was constantly blocked by Ukrainian nationalists on the local level – who tend to consider every step taken into the direction of more minority rights as moving closer to the doorsteps of Mother Russia – with the exception of the areas mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians, where the Ukrainian state never seemed to have as much leverage as in the western parts of the country. The repeal of the language law, however, reveals an additional layer of the Ukrainian conflict, which goes beyond the basic division between pro-Brussels-western-Ukrainians versus pro-Moscow-eastern-Russians.


Good neighbors

Based on the provisions of the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Article 7 paragraph 2 of the language law listed the languages entitled to enjoy the rights stipulated in the law. Thirteen languages were mentioned, including every language whose native speakers also have a kin-state neighboring Ukraine (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova). The number of these indigenous national communities goes as follows: 260,000 Moldovans living next to Bessarabia, 150,000 Hungarians living in Subcarpathia (aka Transcarpathian [Ruthenia]), 150,000 Romanians (30,000 in Subcarpathia in the Máramaros area, and 120,000 in Bessarabia), 140,000 Poles near the Polish boarders, and about 6,000 Slovaks. These numbers pale by comparison with the 8 million ethnic Russians, and are dwarfed in a country counting 45.5 million souls. Still within their autochthon territories even these smaller communities were – at least de jure – entitled to the linguistic rights stipulated in the Language law.

Bearing this in mind it is far from surprising that the foreign affairs ministers of the Visegrád Four (V4) countries immediately prompted a common response on the 24 February, just one day after the repeal of the language law. This announcement states the importance of the respect of common democratic traditions of Europe, including the rights of national, ethnic, and linguistic minorities, as set out by the documents of the Council of Europe (hereinafter CoE). On the same day the Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, also released a statement, saying Romania hoped that the abolished language law would be replaced by a new one, regarding the linguistic and minority rights of Romanians living in Ukraine.

Four days later, the foreign ministers of the V4 visited Kyiv where they received promises from the current prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, regarding the solving of the case of the language law whose abolishment was “not a right move.” This visit also had a significant role in the fact that Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced he would not approve the abolishment of the Law until a new one was presented by the Verkhovna Rada (although the first released draft shows substantial cutbacks in linguistic rights).

These announcements also mentioned support for closer ties with the EU, for reforms made to introduce more safety and democracy in the country, as well as condemning Russian military activity in Crimea. No wonder. Security and good neighborly relations are a common interest for the states surrounding Ukraine, having not just minorities in the country but also significant amounts of invested capital, and pivotal gas transit routes they rely on (not to mention common experiences with Russian intervention). Poland and Hungary have been particularly keen on moving Kyiv closer to the West. Poland, along with Canada, was the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Also in the recent past Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, played a salient role in negotiating a deal between Yanukovych and the opposition, along with his German and French counterparts, regarding early elections and constitutional reforms to be adopted. Hungary exhibited a similar approach. The Treaty between the Republic of Hungary and Ukraine on the Foundations of Good Neighborly Relations and Co-operation, concluded on the 6 December 1991, stated that the parties do not have any territorial claims on each other and that they shall not raise any such claims in the future. Hungary also hosted negotiations on the security of a post-nuclear arms Ukraine in 1994 which resulted in the adoption of the so called Budapest memorandum, concluded by Russia, the U.S., and the UK promising to respect the territorial integrity of a nuclear free Ukraine.


View to a European solution

The above-mentioned announcements from the neighbors of Ukraine interlink peace and democracy with minority rights, which shows the way western civilization approaches the issue at hand. Granting more minority rights is a way of introducing more democracy by creating an inclusive decision-making process closer to the grass-roots level. More linguistic rights, anti-discrimination legislation, and various autonomy arrangements in particular, create effective incentives for persons belonging to minorities to engage in public life. The documents of the CoE, whose implementation Ukraine unilaterally committed herself to when joining the organization in 1995, remind of the same approach.

In terms of general minority protection the CoE reached its peak in the 1990s (Language Charter – 1992, Recommendation 1201 – 1993, Framework Convention – 1995). Since then, the organization has been seeking to achieve a more nuanced approach in terms of minority protection. Thus, documents of the new millennium address the issue by diversifying between the various regional peculiarities. Only by mentioning the names of some of the relevant documents makes this trend tangible: Resolution 1334/2003 on the positive experiences of autonomous regions as a source of inspiration for conflict resolution in Europe (aka the Gross Report), Recommendation 1811/2007 on the regionalization in Europe, Resolution 361/2013 on regions and territories with special status in Europe.

A similarly diversified approach would be appropriate in the case of Ukraine. A good starting point could be to remember two long forgotten events of an historical day, the 1 December 1991. On this day, the citizens of Ukraine voted for the independence of their country on a national referendum. Little is known, however, about two local referendums that were conducted on the same day. The first one regarded broader self-governing competencies for the Subcarpathian Region, and the second one the establishment of a Hungarian autonomous district within this region.

Seventy-eight per cent of the regional electorate voted to grant special status to Subcarpathia, while 81.4% of the Beregszász district of Subcarpathia, whose population was (and still is) overwhelmingly Hungarian, voted to establish a Hungarian Autonomous District. The will of the local communities exhibited on these referendums were never implemented, and they have kept on being neglected ever since. Looking back, these events become especially peculiar in the light of the Crimean secession referendum that most of the world has condemned as illegal, which is still more likely to enter into effect (in some form), than the aforementioned referendums whose legitimacy has always been unambiguous.

The geographic proximity of Russia indeed poses a significant challenge to every Ukrainian wishing to embark on the bumpy road toward European integration, the process of which is not fostered by recent events. The Crimean referendum does not create any incentive for Ukrainians to grant special status to any other territory or national community, still it does not mean that minority protection in general is not implementable in Ukraine either.

If Ukraine were to diversify her conduct towards minorities by drawing inspiration from the soft law of the CoE rather than from the hard actions of Russia, Ukraine would then be able to substantially move closer to Europe in cherishing its common values, and would also ensure the basis of good neighborly relations with adjacent countries, while not contributing to increase any supposed additional Russian influence in the country.


Attila Dabis is a Hungarian political scientist and politician. Since 2012 he has been the Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the Szekler National Council. He is also a PhD student at the International Relations Doctoral School of the Corvinus University of Budapest. His research revolves around European regionalism, the functioning of autonomies, and minority conflicts.