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The language of discord: Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian

Instead of building on the concept of child-centered education, the Ukrainian authorities will likely implement the poorly designed and unprepared educational reform that will bring nothing but further controversy.

January 29, 2018 - Ararat L. Osipian - Stories and ideas

Image by Sgt. Alex Skripnichuk

Ukraine is in the process of building its nation-state. It implies tackling old problems, addressing controversial issues and taking tough steps. Forming a sovereign nation-state within its legitimate borders is never painless. In October 2017, President Petro Poroshenko signed the Law on Education that—among other things—anticipates almost immediate transition of entire secondary education to Ukrainian, i.e. Ukrainian language will become the only language of instruction in all schools. Such a change appears to be a very bold move in such a multicultural, multilingual, and multiethnic country as Ukraine.

Not surprisingly, this move caused a genuine political uproar from Ukraine’s European neighbours—primarily Hungary and Romania—but also Bulgaria and Greece. The first two have sizable ethnic presence in western Ukraine: Transcarpathia and Bukovyna, respectively. Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, who himself is marred into a very serious controversy regarding the stay-or-move dilemma of the US sponsored Central European University, promised to block any Ukrainian initiatives in the EU. President of Romania, Claus Iohannis, cancelled his scheduled visit to Ukraine. European charters on languages and rights of ethnic minorities have been mentioned numerous times. And this might be just the beginning of the growing scandal. Is this overreaction or is it justified?

Ukrainisation of education has become a most controversial issue that takes Ukraine’s domestic policy to the intergovernmental and indeed EU level. A lot of ink has been spilled over the topic and there is no doubt that much more will be spilled in the months to come. The political rhetoric is harsh and promises to turn even harsher. Concerns of Hungarian and Romanian leaders in regards to the rights of historically formed ethnic enclaves are counterbalanced by recent marches of Ukrainian nationalists through the towns populated by ethnic minorities. Journalists add oil to the flame, producing numerous reports that highlight the controversy. There is no need to re-capitulate them here at length. As I have studied educational reforms in post-Communist settings for over two decades and spent the last four years conducting fieldwork on education corruption in Ukraine—both west and east—as well as Romania and Moldova, I feel the urge to share my thoughts on this burning issue.

Ukrainisation of education, including both secondary schools and colleges, is presented as one of the steps aimed as strengthening the Ukrainian statehood. This approach may be inherently flawed. First, formation of a nation-state on the basis of one language, titular ethnic group, and religion is characteristic of the 19th century, and by now absolutely outdated. Second, this approach demonstrates that Ukraine does not share European values, including diversity, plurality of forms, and freedom of expression in self-identity, language, culture, and religion. Instead of cultivating multiplicity of forms in every aspect of social life, the ruling political regime imposes conformity and monopolises the right to say what is right and what is wrong, what is patriotic and what is not, what is Ukrainian and what is alien.

Third, the central government lacks both resources and political will to implement the reform. Teacher retraining and new textbooks are costly, while many teachers and pupils do not speak Ukrainian at all. Finally, and most importantly, there is no public support for such a swift and dramatic change. As follows from media reports, ethnic Ukrainians are generally indifferent to the expected change, while local communities of ethnic minorities are largely against it.

The language component of the educational reform reaches far beyond trans-border issues, as these are not simply ethnic minorities. While they are Ukrainian citizens for Ukraine, for Hungary they are Hungarian citizens permanently residing abroad. The same is true for Romanians in Bukovyna and Bessarabia. Furthermore, not only ethnic Hungarians and Romanians, but also numerous ethnic Ukrainians hold Hungarian or Romanian citizenship. While Ukraine officially does not recognise double citizenship, hundreds of thousands of its citizens residing in border regions hold foreign passports. Some estimates put the total well above one million. Moreover, Hungary provides generous financial support to its ethnic community, including state entities, such as schools and hospitals. Romania has educational programmes on both school and college level for its compatriots in Ukraine.

Caught in geopolitical games, leaders of these bordering nations hardly think of any educational goals. Instead, politicisation of education is the only task they may have in order to advance their agenda of sustaining the ruling political regime. That is why they discuss such issues as unity, autonomy, sovereignty, language, rights of ethnic minorities and such, while completely disregarding education itself. The only “educational” argument, voiced by Ukraine’s Minister of Education and Science, Liliya Hrynevych, is that children of ethnic minorities should have the opportunity to study at Ukrainian universities. And to do so, they obviously need to learn all subjects in Ukrainian while at school. This explanation is nothing but a fig leaf with which the ruling political regime attempts to cover its gargantuan nationalistic ambitions combined with the inability to restructure its outdated and highly corrupt educational sector.

Quite expectedly, next announcement after Ukrainisation of ethnic schools came about Ukrainisation of ethnic kindergartens. What can be more obvious than that? And to move this logic one step further, it should also be mandatory for Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and other ethnic households to speak Ukrainian only, or otherwise their children will not be able to master the state language in kindergarten, be successful in secondary schools, and enter the university. The language of schooling versus the language spoken at home has been an issue in many nations, including former Soviet republics, and the most recent case of Ukraine is in no way unique in this regard.

Thus far I have mentioned Transcarpathia, Bukovyna, and Bessarabia, all located in the west of Ukraine. But there is also the Russian speaking east, and Russian politicians use the rhetoric similar to that of Ukraine’s western neighbours. The Law on Education applies equally to all parts of Ukraine, including west and east, and thus all schools should be completely Ukrainised by 2020. The situation in the east is even more complicated than in the west, as there are no ethnic enclaves, most population is of mixed origin and most people can hardly identify themselves as either ethnic Ukrainians or Russians.

In Donetsk region’s new administrative center, Kramatorsk, 78 per cent of population identify themselves as Ukrainians, but most speak Russian. At the same time, out of three dozen schools in Kramatorsk, there is only one Ukrainian gymnasium, and even this school is now closed. I visited the grounds on numerous occasions, observing a typical Soviet school, where pupils speak Russian outside the classroom and teachers are more comfortable speaking Russian as well. As this Ukrainian school remains closed, the Head of Donetsk State Regional Administration, Pavlo Zhebrivsky, acknowledges that the Dutch aid agency that funded the major repair of this Ukrainian gymnasium intends to sue for misappropriation of funds and poor quality of repair—the roof leaks even more than it did in the 1990s.

Another school nearby, built during the Joseph Stalin era and located across the street from the Headquarters of the State Regional Administration, is the worst school in the entire region, indicating the lowest average scores in standardised testing. This school has not seen a major repair for decades. It  managed to set a website in Ukrainian, but the instruction is traditionally done in Russian. The ongoing war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea complicate the whole picture even further. Both are indivisible parts of Ukraine where Ukrainian laws should be the only laws. Three million Ukrainian citizens continue to reside in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while Crimea hosts another two-and-a-half million people, including over 200,000 Crimean Tatars. The Law on Education should apply to these regions as well. However, given the present circumstances, this appears to be impractical.

Instead of building on the concept of child-centered education, the central authorities will likely implement the poorly designed and unprepared reform that will bring nothing but further controversy. As far as possible practical solutions for this puzzling educational situation are concerned, localised ethnic communities have plenty of options to assure that their children are educated in an EU language and can study or work productively in one of the EU member-states. Sunday schools, private schools, supplementary private tutoring, and simply ignoring the law are all practical solutions. Sunday schools for ethnic minorities are a common practice around the world. Private non-profit schools with low cost of attendance are a growing trend globally.

Both the former and the latter may be funded by the community with financial assistance from the respected foreign government, be it Hungary or Romania. Supplementary private tutoring is already a norm in all parts of Ukraine. Finally, life shows that many laws in Ukraine are routinely ignored, especially in distant parts of the country. As one can see, there are plenty of options for ethnic minorities. All left for Ukrainians is to hope that the Law on Education will not become the true apple of discord between Ukraine and the EU.

Ararat L. Osipian holds a PhD in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is Fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and Honorary Associate at the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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  • Indy

    “formation of a nation-state on the basis of one language is characteristic of the 19th century, and by now absolutely outdated.”
    “this approach demonstrates that Ukraine does not share European values”

    Well, then you can definitely exclude France from Europe, on exactly the same reasons. And also (more or less) most countries in Western Europe 🙂

  • Robert Bennett

    Identifying a state with a nation is primitive. We all have to learn to live together and share in the richness of each others cultures.

  • Ważka

    It’s a great analysis which clearly depicts dangers associated with this new educational law. While I understand that it is important to integrate minorities into host country linguistic space it cannot be done by forced assimilation. Many EU countries have ethnic minorities (including Ukrainian minority) and all give them possibility to get a comprenhesive education in their language but not at the expense of official state language – Ukraine can easily emulate their experience.

    In hindsight, this misguided law has caused more harm than good. Hungary, which was the most vocal critic of this bill, decided to block Ukraine’s meetings with NATO. It also affected Ukraine’s relations with these EU countries which have sizeable minorities there. Most importantly, this bill is contested by the minorities themselves and it’s dubious that Ukrainian nationalists will scare them into submission. This can even turn into a security risk for Ukraine especially in Transcarpathia, because all ethnic grievances will be readily exploited by Russia, as it already happens in Lithuania.

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