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Ukraine's New Language Law, Explained
23 May, 2019

In less than two months, the law that protects the Ukrainian language as the only official language is expected to come into force. It has survived attempts to abolish it, both within the Ukrainian parliament and within the UN Security Council (initiated by Russia). However, the law will still be subject to new president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “thorough analysis,” as well as the analysis of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission

Hromadske takes a look at what the law stipulates and how it will affect the everyday lives of Ukrainians – if it indeed survives the challenges and takes effect.

Areas Regulated

When the law comes into force, which is expected to happen on July 17, only Ukrainian language will be allowed to be used by state and local authorities, enterprises, institutions, and organizations. The only exception will be in currently Russia-occupied Crimea, where additionally to Ukrainian, the Crimean Tatar language will be allowed as the language of indigenous people of Ukraine. In these institutions, foreign languages will only be allowed in communication with foreigners or stateless persons.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Parliament Adopts Language Law

If a person claims not to speak Ukrainian, law enforcement officers will be allowed to communicate with them in any other language that’s convenient for both parties or use an interpreter.

Ukrainian will also be the sole language of elections, referendums, and election campaigning. In some Ukrainian regions, distribution of campaign materials – such as leaflets – will be allowed in the languages of indigenous people. 

A woman holds a poster that reads “Language matters” near the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on April 25, 2019, the day the law was adopted. Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko

Cultural events will also have to be held in Ukrainian. However, other languages are allowed if it is a creative idea by the author. The rule does not apply to the performance of songs, so Russian-speaking singers need not worry. If the language of performance in theatre in communal or state theatre is not Ukrainian, organizers should provide subtitles or sound translation.

According to the law, Ukrainian should also be dominant in the cinema. Movies in other languages should not exceed 10% of the overall number of movies. Cinemas showing movies in original language with Ukrainian subtitles should note that for every such film, there should be nine other films in (or dubbed in) Ukrainian.

Movies that are produced in Ukraine can be voiced or dubbed into Crimean Tatar or other indigenous languages.

The printed press is required to be published in Ukrainian. Another language is allowed if the outlet has an identical (in terms of content, printing methods and release date and time) Ukrainian-language version. These requirements do not apply to outlets issued in Crimean Tatar, other indigenous languages, English or any other official language of the European Union.

Where the press is sold, at least 50% of the outlets must be in the state language. However, this applies to the variety of outlets, not the number of copies of each outlet. So, if a kiosk sells 2 copies of a Ukrainian newspaper and 100 copies of a Russian-language newspaper, this will not be deemed a violation.

For the national and regional print media, there will be a transitional period of two and a half years. For the local ones, the period will be five years.

Book publishing is quite simple – 50% of all books printed in a year must be in Ukrainian. The same ratio must be applied to the bookstores or other facilities, selling books.

Official authorities will be required to only use the software in the Ukrainian language. If this is not possible, English-language software is allowed.

All of the local and state institutions, enterprises and organizations, as well as businesses registered in Ukraine, which sell goods or services, will be required to have websites in Ukrainian, which must be the default version. They must not have less information in the state language than in other languages. For this norm, a three-year transition period is provided.

The language of service will also be Ukrainian. That means a doctor and their patient should communicate in Ukrainian. However, switching to another language, for example, Russian, is possible by mutual agreement. Doctors will be required to comply with this by July; those working in customer service – after a year and a half.

Citizenship

The law states that any person who wants to obtain Ukrainian citizenship must have an appropriate level of knowledge of the state language. However, there is an exception.

MPs react to the adoption of the language law on April 25, 2019 in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: EPA-EFE / Stepan Franko

Foreigners or stateless persons who have contributed outstanding service to Ukraine will not be required to prove their language skills immediately in order to receive citizenship – they are allowed one year to get their language up to a standard. This includes those who serve in the country’s armed forces or have state awards. The same rule will apply to foreign athletes who want to compete in the national teams of Ukraine. How well a foreigner should know the language will be established by the National Commission for Standards of the State Language.

Article 7, which concerns the level of proficiency of the language before obtaining the citizenship, will come into force on May 16, 2021.

Language as a Duty

According to the law, Ukrainian will have to be applied in all the official duties of the country. This includes officials of all levels, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, lawyers, notaries, school directors, teachers and scientists, health workers of municipal and state institutions, workers of enterprises, institutions and organizations of state and communal ownership.

They will be required to prove their level of knowledge of the Ukrainian language with an official document. For officials, except for local deputies and officials of local governments, as well as leadership of law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, judges, heads of educational institutions this will be a certificate, issued by the National Commission on the Language Standards. For the rest – the secondary education diploma will suffice.

Private Communications

In Article 2, the law states it does not concern people's private conversations. No one is going to walk into cafes, bus stops or eavesdrop to people's conversations had on balconies.

Help, Not Punish

The law primarily focuses on teaching and only then punishing. The authors of the law took this into account. Article 5 of the law obliges the government to establish and develop a state program to promote the study of the Ukrainian language.

There are plans to establish a network of state and municipal courses to facilitate studying of the state language. Every year, the country’s budget should allocate funds to print textbooks and to provide free access to them for all willing to learn Ukrainian.

Who Will Be Policing?

A special ombudsman will be appointed by Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers who should protect and promote the development of the Ukrainian language, according to the law. This cannot be a person who previously violated the language law or, contrary to the Constitution, tried to introduce multilingualism in Ukraine.

The ombudsman’s function will be to check how the legislation is implemented, to examine complaints from individuals and legal entities about non-compliance, to initiate investigations, and punishments for officials who violate the law and to issue fines.

In order for the ombudsman to consider a complaint, it must not be anonymous and must contain a date and address for feedback. Within 10 days, the ombudsman must decide whether to accept the complaint, then he or she has 30 days for a language examination or verification of compliance with the law.

Paying for the Language

If the ombudsman or their representative found violations of the law on language in the service sector, they declare a warning to the violator and give 30 days to eliminate the flaws. If the violation is repeated again, a protocol is drawn up and a fine of 5,100-6,800 hryvnia ($189-252) is imposed.

Participants of the demonstration that took place near the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 25, 2019, the day the law was adopted. Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko

Officials who violate the law on language during work, official events or meetings will be forced to pay a fine from 3,400 to 6,800 hryvnia ($126-252).

Failure to comply with the requirements of the language law in the print media will bring up a fine of 6,800-8,500 hryvnia ($252-314). In case of other violations, the fine will range from 3,400 to 5,100 hryvnia ($126-189). However, the first violation will be punished only with a warning in all cases.

In the event of a third violation during the year, the fine will increase to 11,900 hryvnia ($440).

READ MORE: Zelenskyy Will “Thoroughly Analyze” New Language Law Once He Takes Office

/By Fedir Prokopchuk

/Translated by Džiugas Kuprevičius