Ukraine’s Neighbors Threaten Its Euro-Integration Over Education Law
16 October, 2017

Hromadske breaks down the latest developments in the international controversy over Ukraine’s decision to expand teaching in the Ukrainian language.  

Ongoing backlash from Ukraine’s European neighbors over the country’s education reform may be escalating.

Last week, the Council of Europe officially criticized Ukraine’s new education law and now the country is awaiting further recommendations. Meanwhile, Hungary announced plans to initiate a review of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, claiming the education legislation violates Ukraine’s international agreements.

Despite a joint statement of opposition from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the country’s new education law on September 25. The planned reforms — which aim to eliminate schools teaching primarily in the languages of ethnic minorities beyond the fourth grade in favour of Ukrainian-language instruction — officially came into effect on September 28.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Education Reform Angers Neighbors Over Minority Rights

The Ukrainian government remained optimistic despite the initial backlash. At the orders of President Poroshenko, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made plans to reconcile with the country’s European partners and the Council of Europe.

But things may not be going according to plan. While Ukraine insists it is open to dialogue regarding the legislation, its European neighbors seem to be presenting a “united front.”

Tag Team

On October 3, the press service for Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced that Hungary and Romania would be taking “joint action” in response to the education law. This news came after a meeting between Hungary’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Péter Szijjártó, and Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Meleşcanu.

Szijjártó stated that the both countries “now regard the events as a ‘stab in the back’” and were mutually concerned about this “major violation of the rights of minorities.”

A week later, Szijjártó travelled to Uzhgorod in western Ukraine to “consult” with local leaders of the Transcarpathian Hungarian community.

Following the meeting, he claimed both parties agreed that the new law “virtually” shuts down Hungarian schools in Ukraine and takes away the Hungarian minority’s right to learn their native language, “thus breaking Ukraine's existing international obligations.”  

Szijjártó then announced that as such, Hungary plans to initiate a review of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Foreign Affairs Council on October 16.

“The education law fundamentally violates the Association Agreement concluded by Ukraine and the European Union, and with regard to this, I shall initiate a review of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement at the meeting of Foreign Ministers to be held in Luxembourg next Monday [October 16],” he said.

Szijjártó also expressed his strong support for the rights of Hungarians in Ukraine’s Zakarpattya (Transcarpathia) region, while acknowledging that they make up 12% of the regional population.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a surprised response to Hungary’s announcement. “Hungary has the right to raise any issue within the EU. But decisions regarding Ukraine can not be adopted without Ukraine, which pays an extremely high price for its place in Europe,” the statement read.

The Ministry also stressed that a “European future” is a common goal for all Ukrainian citizens, including the Hungarian minority. Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin announced that he was prepared to visit Budapest on October 12.

“[Ukraine is] prepared for dialogue at the international level, at the local level and within the framework of international organizations. We are waiting for representatives of the Hungarian Parliament both in Kyiv and in Transcarpathia. But the discussion should be based on arguments,” the statement said.

READ MORE: EU Ratifies Association Agreement with Ukraine

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko then responded to the international controversy over the Education law  during a plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on October 11. His speech emphasized that the legislation does not pose a threat to national minorities.

The [Education] law does not contain a single word opposing the study of the languages of national minorities,” he said. “But we ask that you also study Ukrainian. We are completely transparent and have sent the project to the Venice Commission [on constitutional law] for evaluation.” 

Education Reform Roadshow

The next day, October 12, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Klimkin travelled to Budapest to meet with his Hungarian counterpart. He also announced plans for a working visit Bucharest on October 13 to meet with Romania’s Foreign Minister and initiate a dialogue on the rights of the Romanian minority in Ukraine, Interfax reported.

Despite Hungary and Romania purported “joint action,” Klimkin later claimed that things went “quite differently” during his respective visits.

But after the meeting with Klimkin, Hungary’s position appeared to be unchanged. “Hungary and Ukraine view the issue of the Ukrainian Education Act totally differently,” Szijjártó told the press, maintaining that Hungary would continue to refuse to support Ukraine’s European integration unless the education legislation was amended.

“Until the local Hungarian community states that it is satisfied with the situation, however, Hungary is unable to retract its decision not to support Ukrainian proposals and issues that are important to Ukraine on international forums,” he said.

Szijjártó also added that “Hungary’s goal isn’t conflict” and expressed his appreciation for Klimkin travelling to Budapest and choosing “the path of dialogue in this extremely difficult period.”

Later that evening, Szijjártó told Hungarian M1 television that “it isn’t the Ukrainian Government’s place to decide what is good for Transcarpathia Hungarians.”

In Romania, Klimkin’s working visit seemed to yield better results. While in Bucharest on October 13, he stressed that no Romanian schools would be closed and spoke positively about Romania’s willingness to engage in dialogue on the issue.  

“In Romania, everything is completely different than in Hungary,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is a readiness for open dialogue. But it is necessary to work with the local community in detail.”

Back in Budapest, the controversy continued with a demonstration outside of the Embassy of Ukraine. The protesters called for self-determination for the country’s national minorities.

“From today. Friday [October] 13. I don’t know if the organizers chose this day by accident. A protest outside the Embassy of Ukraine in Budapest, to which the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its opposition,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Hungary, Liubov Nepop, wrote in a surprised Facebook post.

Nepop Liuba

Two days earlier, Klimkin had taken to Twitter in response to the planned protest, asking if “Budapest supports separatism.” He then announced that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent a note of protest to Hungary, requesting it ban the “Self-determination for Transcarpathia” protest.

“[The Ministry of Foreign Affairs] immediately sent a note of protest with a demand to prevent the provocation! We are confident that Hungary will respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” he wrote.

According to Nepop, the demonstrators were demanding “the self-determination of Transcarpathia and freedom for the Rusyn, Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, [and] Armenian communities living on the territory of Ukraine.”

While Hungary appears to be the most vehement opposition to the legislation, PACE has also expressed reservations.

On October 12, it adopted a resolution criticizing Ukraine’s new education law for its apparent failure “to strike an appropriate balance between the official language and the languages of national minorities.”

The PACE Committee on Education and Culture also prepared recommendations on the new law, asking the Ukrainian government to “fully implement the forthcoming recommendations and conclusions of the Venice Commission and to modify the new Education Act accordingly.”

A total of 82 delegates voted for the relevant resolution, with 17 abstentions and 11 opposed. But no one was entirely pleased with the results.

“The resolution is a purely political moment. It does not require Ukraine to take any concrete steps” said Volodymyr Aryev, a representative of the Ukrainian delegation, after the vote. “From a legal point of view, nothing has changed for Ukraine since the report. We are waiting for the conclusions of the Venice Commission.”  

Hungary and Romania’s statements during the debate prior to the vote on the resolution also prompted criticism from the Ukrainian side.

“Their rhetoric is pre-election and aimed at mobilizing [their electorates] by showing that Romanian and Hungarian politicians are struggling for their compatriots in all parts of the world,” the Ukrainian Parliament’s First Deputy Chairman, Iryna Gerashchenko, wrote on Facebook.

Iryna Gerashchenko

Meanwhile, representatives of the Bulgarian minority in Ukraine have supported the new legislation, while drawing attention to a lack of qualified teachers of the Bulgarian language and textbooks. In response, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Education announced its readiness to provide assistance for teacher training, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education reported.

“The adoption of the new law ‘On Education’ changes less for the Bulgarian minority than, for example, the Hungarian or Romanian,” said Bulgarian Ambassador Krasimir Minchev. “Because Bulgarian education schools have been working according to the newly prescribed rules for a while already. We understand that children should learn the state language.”

According to Interfax, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission will make its conclusions regarding the education law in December.

/Written by Eilish Hart