National Minorities Oppose Ukraine’s New Education Law
12 December, 2017

Ukraine has faced domestic and international backlash since its new education law came into effect on September 28. The law – aimed at eliminating schools teaching primarily in the languages of national minorities beyond the fourth grade in favour of Ukrainian-language instruction – was particularly controversial in Hungary and Romania. But what do Ukraine’s national minorities think about the prospect of Ukrainian language education in their schools? And how will local schools implement the new language norms?

To find out, Hromadske travelled to Ukraine’s Zakarpattya and Chernivtsi regions, which border Hungary and Romania.

Lunch time in the school yard of the Hungarian Gymnasium in Berehove – a city in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya region – is noisy. Parents come to pick up their kids and talk among themselves. Hungarian can be heard everywhere. The clock reads 15:00, but they studying according to Central European time here, so classes finish for the pupils at 14:00 Ukrainian time. The main topic of conversation in the schoolyard? Ukraine’s new education law.

Ukraine’s parliament adopted the law in mid-September and it was signed by President Petro Poroshenko on September 25. The law’s seventh article, which guarantees education in the official state language, Ukrainian, became the subject of a diplomatic scandal. Now, national minority schools are required to provide pupils with education in Ukrainian starting in the fifth grade. Nevertheless, national minorities in Ukraine retain the right to study their native languages.

Studying in minority languages will be possible in pre-school and from grades one to four. Separate classes will be created to teach the minority language in question as one of many school subjects. But the other subjects will not be taught in minority languages. (According to the law, these languages include Belarusian, Bulgarian, Gagauzian, Greek, Hebrew, Crimean Tatar, Moldovan, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Slovakian and Romanian.)

The Hungarian and Romanian governments were among the first to react to the new law. Their co-nationals make up the sixth and seventh largest ethnic groups in Ukraine’s population, respectively. Hungary even announced it would block all of Ukraine’s initiatives aimed at integration into the European Union as long as the education law remained in force.

Romania, however, seemed more willing to cooperate on this issue. “In my case it’s obvious that I’m interested in the Romanian minority in Ukraine and had a very serious discussion with President Poroshenko,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told Hromadske at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on November 24. “We agreed to work towards a solution.”

When asked about the new education law’s impact on Ukraine’s relations with the European Union, President Iohannis expressed his optimism about finding “good, decent and feasible solutions.”

Then, on December 7, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced that Hungary will be initiating the installation of long-term OSCE observers in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya Region. “[Zakarpattya] is a multi-ethnic territory, and the new education legislation does not promote peaceful cohabitation in the region,” he said at a plenary meeting of the Ministerial Council of the OSCE in Vienna.

But the very next day the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission appeared to rule against Hungary and in favour of Ukraine when adopting its Opinion on the Education Law. “It is legitimate and commendable aim for states to promote the strengthening of the state language and its command by all,” it stated in a press release  on December 8.

While the Commission acknowledged that international criticism was justified in the context of the Ukrainian Constitution “it stressed that it belongs to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to take a stand on the matter.

Hromadske travelled to Ukraine’s Zakarpattya and Chernivtsi regions, the respective homes of the majority of the country’s Hungarian and Romanian populations, to find out how these national minorities live and see whether they are ready to implement the new law.

According to the Laws of Hungarian Time

Several of the parents in the yard of the Hungarian school in Berehove, a city in the Zakarpattya region, smile uneasily and wave off our questions. The pronounce their words slowly and, in broken Russian, explain that they’ve heard about the law, but they speak the language too poorly to talk about it.

That most people only speak Hungarian fluently here is not surprising. At the entrance to Berehove, the sign reads “Welcome to our city” in Ukrainian and Hungarian – “Üdvözöljük városunkban.” Everywhere you go in Berehove, the signs are in both languages.

Berehove is considered the center of Hungarian culture in Zakarpattya. From here, it’s less than five kilometers to the Hungarian border. This closeness to Hungary is immediately evident. The locals live according to Hungarian rather than Kyiv time, Hungarian flags fly over government institutions, churches and houses. A leaflet on the door of Berehove’s Roman Catholic Church advises against abortion – in Hungarian. Hungarian radio echoes through Berehove’s main square. One house has a “no parking” sign in Ukrainian and Hungarian. Nevertheless, a car is parked right beneath it.

“The Hungarians think that it’s their city. It’s like a holy cow for them — God forbid you say something bad,” Vasyl Vovkunovych, a local resident and head of the Svoboda Party, complains to Hromadske. He, personally, speaks Ukrainians but his wife taught him Hungarian. “At least they began to hang the flags correctly, with the Ukrainian [one] on the left side. But sometimes they have Ukraine and Hungary's flags hanging and the Hungarian [flag] is clean, ironed, and the Ukrainian is dirty and shabby. We go to them and say – guys, aren’t you ashamed?”

Special Status for National Minorities

Founded 900 years ago, the city of Berehove has been passed back and forth constantly. In the twentieth century alone, it was under four different regimes: Romanian, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and, finally, the Soviet Union, which the entire Zakarpattya region entered in 1944. The local train station has a plaque commemorating these times, describing the “brutal bombardment by Red [Army] troops.” For Vovkunovych, this plaque is almost like a personal insult. He claims that there were no bombings here and resentfully adds that the Hungarians are setting up “what they want, how they want.”

The Hungarian question in Zakarpattya has always been painful and has often led to the cooling of official relations between Kyiv and Budapest. This is largely due to Hungary’s position. Back in 2014, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed that Hungarians in Zakarpattya should have the right to self-government.

Photo credit: UNIAN

“The Hungarian community there should receive dual citizenship, all the rights of a national community and they should also receive the opportunity for self-government. These are our clear expectations for the new Ukraine,” Orban said at the time.

In March of this year, Hungary’s Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén came out in support of autonomy for Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted “with surprise” and released a statement, in which it cautiously noted that the words of the Deputy Prime Minister do not align with the interests of Budapest and Kyiv.


Despite the fact that Hungary has never officially made territorial claims to Ukraine, in Kyiv they have been cautiously discussing the possibility of “Zakarpattya separatism” for a long time. According to the latest census (2001), ethnic Hungarians make up more than half of Berehove’s population of about 25,000. Nearly all of the Hungarian community of 150,000 live in the Berehove district of Zakarpattya. There are even villages here where they don’t speak Ukrainian at all. For this reason, children study entirely in Hungarian. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education, there are 71 such schools, six of which are in Berehove.

One of them – Public School No. 6 – is located almost exactly in the city center, 300 meters from Rakoczi Square. Ferenc Rakoczi is the most popular historical figure in Berehove. Memorials and busts of the main ideologist of Hungary’s eighteenth century war of liberation can be found all over the city. The school flies two flags – Ukrainian and Hungarian – and its nameplate is written in both languages. The Vice Principal speaks in lightly accented Ukrainian and explains that he is not against the law, but needs written permission from the city council to speak to journalists.  

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

Like in every small Ukrainian city, the city council is located nearby. Here they’ve posted three flags: Ukraine’s, Hungary’s and a flag with Berehove’s coat of arms. Deputy Mayor of Berehove, Nadezhda Lovha, says with a smile that of course no one is forbidden from going to the school. But she refuses to give out official documents.

This sharp change towards reluctance to speak with journalists from local authorities appeared immediately after the President signed the education law. In a previous telephone conversation with Hromadske, Lovha only sighed and said that she did not know how the law would be implemented. But she promised to explain all of the nuances.

In fact, not a single Hungarian language school let us in, but for different reasons. One said that they “just didn’t want to,” another asked for permission from the city council. But in the village of Yanoshi, not far from Berehove, they answered honestly: they had received instructions from the district administration not to let journalists into the schools.

Politics and Rights

“They can’t do anything without a step from above. Apparently they were told to keep quiet until they kept quiet,” offers Vasyl Vovkunovych as his version of what happened. He underscores that the Ukrainians normally get along well with the Hungarians in Berehove. But it becomes clear from the conversation that this is a cold war rather than a truce.

According to Iryna Harmasiy – Director of the Movement for the Protection of the Ukrainian Language – the language problem only arises with the Hungarian national minority. She supports the law on education, calling it a great victory.

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

But all of the parents that Hromadske spoke to in Berehove were against the new law. They were reluctant to speak to the press. “Of course studying Ukrainian is necessary but we’re opposed to everything being abolished immediately and abruptly” says Valentyn, the father of a pupil from a Hungarian school.  

“The fact that they won’t let us get an education in our native language is a violation of our rights,” claims Yeva, who’s child is in first grade at a Hungarian school. Her older son has already graduated from the same school. “In general, from talking to teachers, no one is against the law. It’s not bad. But this particular [language] norm outrages us.”

“Do you hear how I speak Ukrainian? And I’m Hungarian,” says another man, picking up his daughter from school. He introduces himself as Ludwig. “How is a child supposed to study all [of their] subjects in Ukrainian? For that they should be thinking in Ukrainian.”

Meanwhile, a Hungarian philologist from the Hungarian Gymnasium (he called himself “Laszlo”) told Hromadske that he’s afraid of losing his job. The schools have no plan as to how to implement the law, leaving teachers worried about their futures.

No Money

For supporters of the law, the results of external independent testing (examinations for admission to universities in Ukraine) are the leading arguments in its favour. The Zakarpattya region consistently scores the lowest in the country, with many receiving grades too low for university admission.

But many aren’t interested in applying to university in Ukraine. In Berehove, for example, there is a Hungarian university where most of the city’s graduates study. The rest are often accepted to European universities.

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

“They leave here with knowledge of at least five languages. And most of them don’t plan to return to Ukraine,” Hennadiy Moskal, Governor of the Zakarpattya Region, tells Hromadske.

When Ukraine’s parliament passed the law Moskal was one of the first to protest it, calling on the President to use his veto power. He says that he doesn’t know how to implement the language norms, although it could be because the region doesn’t have the money. According to the law, teachers in national minority language schools should be retrained in Ukrainian. In Moskal’s opinion, it’s almost impossible – the teachers have specific subjects, such as chemistry, physics and geography, and they can’t teach them at the necessary level in Ukrainian. And Ukrainian speaking teachers don’t want to go to their native villages – let alone to Hungarian ones.

There is also the question of how much the Hungarian minority needs a thorough knowledge of the Ukrainian language. Like all border regions, in Zakarpattya a very large percentage of the population are migrant workers. They most often go to Slovakia or Hungary and many of them have two passports – one Ukrainian and one from a neighbouring country.

“The problem is purely economic. Because if people were to have jobs here then they wouldn’t leave. Yes we all understand that there is a war and the people who are leaving also understand this. But it’s natural for people to seek somewhere better and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Hennadiy Moskal.

The Hungarian community in the region is really the most united. All of the local councils include ethnic Hungarians and in the regional council they are represented by the Society of Hungarian Culture of Zakarpattya party (Kárpátaljai Magyar Kulturális Társaság). According to Moskal, this party has an agreement with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc to support each other’s initiatives.

The Hungarian government is constantly investing in the development of the region. Moskal says that from Uzhgorod you can even go to a clinic in Budapest and get free – and more over, better qualified – medical assistance. In addition, Hungary finances Hungarian and Ukrainian schools in the areas of residence of national minorities, and allocates grants for the construction of roads, and the restoration and opening of small businesses.

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

These contributions from the Hungarian government to its national minority in other countries is also linked to the fact that Hungary is not interested in their return to their historical homeland. “Hungary isn’t [made of] rubber and they have enough problems of their own. Therefore they want their national minority [abroad] to live where they are. But they don’t want their rights to be infringed upon,” explains the Governor of the Zakarpattya Region.

Ukraine’s Hungarian politicians have yet to comment on what is happening. The Society of Hungarian Culture of Zakarpattya refused to talk to Hromadske. But the idea of opening private Hungarian schools already exists in the event that the new language norm remains part of the law on education. Hungarian parents told Hromadske that they expect this to happen and that they will then be able to transfer their children to private schools.

On the Border With Romania

Twenty-five kilometers from Chernivtsi, almost on the border with Romania, the Romanian national minority lives just as compactly as the Hungarians in Zakarpattya. Sixteen thousand Romanians and Hungarians study in schools in their native language. As such, it’s not surprising that the Romanian and Hungarian governments jointly opposed the education law. In their official statement they decided to “increase pressure on Ukraine.”


The Hertsa district is part of the Northern Bukovina region, which became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1940. The district itself was not part of the Soviet Union’s territorial claims, but it was annexed by the USSR at the time. Now, 90 percent of Ukraine’s Romanian-speaking population lives there.

The town of Hertsa is small – about two thousand people live there. The border with Romania is just a few kilometers away. The acting Mayor’s son, who takes us to the neighbouring village of Ternavka, waves to the hills and says “that’s where Romania starts.” But if in Berehove it seems that you’re no longer in Ukraine, in Hertsa only the street names and inscriptions that are duplicated in Romanian speak to the proximity to the border.

Smiling and friendly, the acting Mayor of Hertsa, Konstantyn Tanas willingly tells Hromadske about where and how the children are taught – unlike his colleagues from Berehove. He speaks Russian well, but with a Romanian accent. He also speaks Ukrainian, but he admits that it’s worse. He explains that in the Hertsa district there are 22 schools but only two of them are Ukrainian language schools. And in the entire Chernivtsi region there are 61 Romanian schools.

In the hall of the Ternavka Romanian public school there are stands with the Ukrainian anthem, the coat of arms and the flag, next to sheet of A4 paper with an official photo of President Petro Poroshenko.

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

The school has an international cultural environment. On the wall there is a large portrait of a young Taras Shevchenko, next to Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. Further along there is another large image of King Stefan III of Moldavia.

According to the Principal, Yakov Postyvko, this school has 220 students. All of them are ethnic Romanians. He himself is also Romanian, but was born and studied in Ukraine. Instructions on how the new law will be implemented have yet to be given to the school but the teachers have discussed it among themselves. Postyvko claims that the majority are against it.

“We aren’t against studying Ukrainian as the state language,” he explains. “But we want all subjects to be in our language. This is primordially Romanian land. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact divided it, part of our population, for example the village of Dyakovtsy, is in Romania.”

By international definition, the indigenous people are a group of people who lived on a certain territory prior to its occupation or before immigrants came there. Since this part of Northern Bukovina was only incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR – whose heir is Ukraine – in 1944, the Romanians can be considered an indigenous group. But Ukrainian legislation defines Crimean Tatars, Crimean Greeks, Azov Greeks and Crimean Karaites as Ukraine’s indigenous people. All of the rest – that is Romanians and Hungarians – are representatives of national minorities. 

Photo credit: Serhiy Beyko/HROMADSKE

In addition to the moral aspect, there is a personnel problem. Postyvko says that there aren’t enough teachers. And how they’re supposed to retrain the Romanian teachers is incomprehensible.

Iryna Yatsko teaches Ukrainian language and literature at this school. She is also Romanian – at first she taught herself Ukrainian and later attended the Chernivtsi Pedagogical University. According to her, the external independent testing results for her subjects weren’t high this year, although Romanian children are very capable and many of them are pleased to learn Ukrainian.

“I don’t want to offend anyone, but at first it will be hard,” she’s cautiously comments on the new law. “The children will only know conversational Romanian because they will only speak it with their families. It will also be difficult for the teachers. Imagine, if someone has been teaching in Romanian for twenty or thirty years, how do they switch to Ukrainian?”

On the other hand, Yatsko acknowledges that the law will make it easier for Romanian graduates to gain admission to Ukrainian universities. Although, the majority of pupils choose to apply to higher education institutes in Chernivtsi.

Photo credit: UNIAN

In the neighboring village of Molnytsia they also said at the local school that the majority of university applicants go to Chernivtsi. The school’s principal, Dmitriy Zhytarashu, who represents “both the principal and the manager,” immediately shows us the curriculum plan. They’ve planned four hours of Ukrainian language and literature per week, plus another faculty hour of preparation for external independent testing.

Zhytarashu is short and animated, he waves his arms, reacting resentfully to rumors in the press about “separatists” living in Chernivtsi that don’t know Ukrainian. He leads us along the corridor, showing us the newspapers and notices written in Romanian as well as Ukrainian. Separately, Zhytarashu shows us a stand dedicated to ATO soldiers who studied in Molnytsia. Noticing that the portrait of one of the soldiers was becoming unglued, he immediately took out some sticky tape and lovingly taped it back up.

“They say that we’re separatists. We are not separatists! We know Ukrainian, we want to learn it. But we also want to study and think in our native language,” he strongly urges.

The teachers echo him – they assure us that there were never any problems with the language issue in Molnytsia. And they don’t understand why they decided to raise this question now. They become offended when they hear that Romanian graduates perform worse in external independent testing and start to protect their pupils, explaining that children are different and nationality is not important. Zhytarashu takes us into one of the classes where second-graders are having their Romanian literature class.

“Children, do you know Ukrainian?” he asks them in Ukrainian.

“We know it!” the children answer in an irregular chorus. When we left, they stood up like a chorus and shouted “Do pobachennya” – Ukrainian for “goodbye.”

Our Country is Ukraine

“You know, I studied Romanian in school myself and my children learned Romanian in school. But I will enroll [my] grandchildren in Ukrainian. It’s very hard for them to find work without knowing Ukrainian,” says Konstantyn Tanas. He is looking at the reform optimistically, although so far he doesn’t know how the retraining of Romanian teachers will be. Nevertheless, he is confident that they will cope.

Some of the residents of Hertsa traditionally go to work abroad, not in neighbouring Romania but rather in Italy, Germany, Portugal or Poland. Tanas says that it’s not profitable for locals to go to Romania. Salaries there hardly differ from Ukrainian ones. And the Romanian government also doesn’t care very much about its national minority. Like Hungary they help, but on a small scale and for the last two years they haven’t made any investments at all. This is largely because Ukraine’s Romanians are more integrated into Ukrainian society than the Hungarians.

Photo credit: UNIAN

But the results of external independent testing in Romanian schools remains the lowest in the Chernivtsi region, says Oksana Paliychuk, the Department of Education Director for the Chernivtsi Regional Council. According to her, around 60 percent of Romanian applicants didn’t pass the Ukrainian language test, 67 percent didn’t pass history and nearly fifty percent didn’t pass mathematics. In 2016, 20 percent of applicants didn’t pass external independent testing in Ukrainian language and literature in the Chernivtsi region and almost all of them came from the Hertsa district. Ternavka school principal Yakov Postyvko insists that test for national minority schools should be drawn up under a different program.

While the law has yet to be implemented, everyone is waiting. But if Chernivtsi officials are determined to implement it and generally relate to the reform positively, the Romanians are waiting for what will happen next. And the majority are hoping that the the amendment will be cancelled. The only thing that all parties are sure of is that the situation will eventually be resolved peaceful. Hardly anyone wants to leave Ukraine.

“We are Romanian, but we are Ukrainian Romanian,” underscores Tanas, “So we won’t have any riots or discontent. Our people are calm, hard-working. We only have one country: Ukraine.”

/Written by Yuliana Skibitska 

/Translated and adapted by Eilish Hart