Opinion: Needing Friends, Ukraine Picks A Fight With New Language Law

Image by Vladimir Yaitskiy

As Ukraine struggles with corruption and a hot war with pro-Russian separatists in the east, including the devastating destruction Wednesday of one of its largest weapons depots through a likely act of sabotage, keeping the European Union — and more importantly the International Monetary Fund — happy would seem like an urgent priority.

However, in one fell swoop, Kiev has managed to anger almost all of Eastern Europe.

I’m talking about a new Ukrainian education law which President Petro Poroshenko signed into law Monday. The measure makes clear that Ukrainian language must be the primary language used in the nation’s schools. The problem is that there are many minority communities in Ukraine that teach in their own language, Russian obviously being the largest. Pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region to the east used prejudice against their language as one justification to start an armed rebellion in 2014.

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Romanian- and Hungarian-speaking Ukrainians may soon be joining them, with 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. Although Hungary has its own problems at the moment with the European Union, over migrants and a fight over a school bankrolled by liberal billionaire George Soros, it is very much a functioning member of the bloc — with full voting rights. And Budapest is not very happy at all with the new Ukrainian language law.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Tuesday called Mr. Poroshenko’s decision to sign the law “a shame and a disgrace.”

“We guarantee that all this will be painful for Ukraine in the future,” Mr. Szijjarto said, vowing to block Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the EU, The Associated Press reported.

Romania and Moldova are also upset for similar reasons, with Romania canceling reciprocal state visits with Ukraine. There are 400,000 Romanian speakers in Ukraine.

And Russia has not missed the chance to seize upon the law in its information warfare campaign against Kiev, part of the Kremlin’s never-ending campaign to destabilize its neighbor.

“We urge governments of all countries to take efficient measures with the goal of revoking [the law],” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry. The education law, she added, “violates the fundamental principles enshrined in the documents of the U.N., the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and certainly contradicts Ukraine’s commitments before these international organizations.”

For Russia, of course, annexing a part of another country and fomenting a civil war probably violate those fundamental principles a little more than a language law, but that’s beside the point. What’s undeniable for Ukraine is that the timing of this law was poorly chosen.

I can understand the government wanting to enshrine Ukrainian language and culture within its own borders. I would like English taught primarily in U.S. schools. However, this seems like the wrong battle to fight at the moment for Kiev.

Mr. Poroshenko pushed back against the criticism this week, saying the law “strengthens the role of the Ukrainian language in education” but also protects the rights of all minorities to get education.

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But his government desperately needs the IMF to release the rest of a $17.5 billion aid package, to continue growing the economy and prevent its collapse. The IMF has refused to do so in its entirety, preferring to wait on further progress being made on fighting corruption within Ukraine, and other reforms.

The EU has been Ukraine’s ally in its fight against the rebels in Donbass. The language law seems to needlessly anger individual countries within the EU, an unforced error.

Originally posted at The Washington Times

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