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Ukraine must respect minority education rights on the road to EU accession

| December 1, 2016

Since joining the EU in 2004, Hungary has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine’s path to joining the European community. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been calling for visa-free travel to the EU for the citizens of Ukraine – a symbolic step for Ukraine’s integration into the community. However, in the process, Ukraine also has to do its part, and respect for minority rights, including the right to education, is a part of that.

As I made clear in the Plenary Session recently, with their proposed education reform plan, Ukraine endangers this right. This new proposition would limit the right to education for national minorities in their native tongue to the elementary and secondary school levels and territorially to the areas where minorities live compactly. In addition, the new proposition would only grant the right to native language education in addition to Ukrainian language education. Not only is that a significant step backwards from the current legislation, but it also violates the spirit of current international agreements, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the no. 1201 recommendation of the Council of Europe. All of these agreements are supposed to apply to Ukraine.

In the middle of November, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukrainian deputy prime minister for Euro-Atlantic Affairs and European integration, attended a session of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. After recent concerns over upcoming educational reform and possible limitations imposed on minority language use, I finally had the chance to pose my questions. I asked her whether she could roll back the initiative that would strongly violate the rights of local minorities, but she explicitly denied the existence of the problem. “We are an ethnically diverse nation, the rights of the minorities have to be respected, and we do respect them,” the deputy prime minister said. My question was not answered.

The reform, which has already been adopted in first reading by the Ukrainian Parliament, would practically limit the rights of national minorities for native-language education only to those territories where the minorities are concentrated in a defined geographic area. This deprives dispersed Hungarians of their constitutional right for education in Hungarian language. If the legislation is implemented, it would lead to rapid assimilation not only among Hungarians, but Bulgarians, Poles and Moldovans as well. That’s something we must definitely avoid.

Nevertheless, Ukraine as a country that aspires to EU membership is bound by specific regulation with regard to the Association Agreement between the two parties. This Agreement relies heavily on safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the right to native-language education that Ukraine is about to violate. I suggest that Ukraine examine the Copenhagen criteria before drifting even further from those principles. Also, stripping national minorities of their rights runs contrary to the country’s constitution, which could have grave consequences. Ukraine has to uphold the constitutional liberties of the national minorities and work on expanding them instead of implementing restrictions. The new educational policy is at odds with the Ukrainian constitution, the country’s international commitments and applies to all Ukrainian citizens regardless of their mother tongue.

Ukraine is, in many ways, similar to the current Member States of the EU. One of these similarities is that the country is just as diverse as many members of the EU. Given this similarity, Ukraine has to live up to European standards in safeguarding minority rights – and the right to education in their native tongue is one of these.