Ukrainian Presidents at Odds Over Language

The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, has approved a law which obliges all citizens to know the Ukrainian language and makes it mandatory for civil servants, soldiers, doctors, and teachers.


The law was championed by outgoing president Petro Poroshenko, who is expected to sign it into law before he leaves office after losing re-election to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, After the actor and comedian’s landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections, his campaign spokesperson, Dmytro Razumkov, said that the only official language in Ukraine is Ukrainian, according to the news outlet Ukrainian Pravda. Poroshenko put promotion of the Ukrainian language at the heart of his unsuccessful re-election campaign.


The new legislation requires TV and film distribution firms to ensure 90% of their content is in Ukrainian and for the proportion of Ukrainian-language printed media and books to be at least 50%. The law would threaten the existence of several major publications, including the English-language daily Kyiv Post, and alienate large Russian-speaking communities.


Computer software must also have a Ukrainian-language interface, although the law also allows the use of English or any other official language of the European Union.
Lawmakers gave a standing ovation after the law was passed and sang the national anthem. Hundreds of people with Ukrainian flags had gathered outside the parliament to support the law.


“This is a historic moment, which Ukrainians have been awaiting for centuries, because for centuries Ukrainians have tried to achieve the right to their own language,” one of the authors of the bill, Mykola Knyazhytsky, said before the vote.
The make-up of the parliament has not changed since Zelenskiy’s election win and remains dominated by a coalition supportive of Poroshenko.


The Hungarian government announced that it will continue to block talks between NATO and Ukraine in response to the new law. “The law, which violates the rights of the Hungarian community in the neighboring country, reflects the ideals of outgoing president Petro Poroshenko, who pursued an anti-Hungarian policy,” said Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó.


When asked whether the new president’s team was ready to support the law, Razumkov replied, “Based on Zelenskiy’s position voiced earlier, the only state language in Ukraine is Ukrainian.”


“Development and support of the state language is one of the key prerogatives of the president. But it should be done through encouragement, not with a ‘stick.’ Using a ‘carrot’ can be much more efficient in this particular area,” explained Razumkov. Earlier, as a presidential candidate, Zelenskiy promised to defend the Ukrainian language.


Prior to his bid for the presidency, Zelenskiy was best known for his role in the Ukrainian comedy series Servant of the People, in which he played a destitute schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine after becoming famous for an anticorruption rant that goes viral on social media. In real life, his entertainment empire is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
In the show, his character primarily speaks Russian, along with many other cast members. Thirty percent of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian.


In 2017, Ukrainian became the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade, and Russian-language media were restricted in western Ukraine, where Russian speakers are in the minority.

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