On September 21, the Verkhovna Rada updated the legislation concerning national minorities (communities). Following the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the use of minority languages has been expanded. For example, representatives of such communities will be able to request communication in their language in cases of providing emergency assistance, assistance and protection to victims of domestic violence, care in nursing homes for elderly citizens, and so on, if such language is understandable to the parties involved.
What changes does Bill No. 9610, “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine on National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine” introduce?
1) The definition of the term “national minorities (communities)” has been updated. Now, in order to be considered a national minority, a group of people is not required to reside on the territory of Ukraine “traditionally,” meaning for an extended period of time.
A national minority (community) of Ukraine (hereinafter national minority (community)) is a stable group of Ukrainian citizens who are not ethnic Ukrainians, traditionally reside within the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine, are united by common ethnic, cultural, historical, linguistic, and/or religious characteristics, are aware of their affiliation to it, and express a desire to preserve and develop their linguistic, cultural, and religious distinctiveness.
It should be noted that the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities does not provide a definition of national minorities, which means that each country can apply its own definition. Regarding the term “communities,” the Venice Commission has noted that it does not contradict international law, while the term “minorities” is widely recognized.
2) School attendees who belong to national minorities, as well as teachers, will be provided with textbooks for secondary school education free of charge. The procedure for such a provision is to be developed by the Cabinet of Ministers. However, it is not clear from the text of the law whether these textbooks are proposed to be provided in the state language or the language of the respective national minorities. Additionally, the “Law on Education” already establishes the right of all education seekers to receive free textbooks, so this provision of the law may not change much. In other words, it will be implemented if the Cabinet of Ministers allocates resources in its regulations for the development and printing of such textbooks.
3) The conditions for providing support in the state language for public events have been changed. Previously, the law stipulated that public events organized and conducted by individuals belonging to national minorities could be held in the language of the respective national minority. Furthermore, anyone could request event organizers for support (translation) in the state language at least 48 hours before the event. The newly adopted law amends this provision in response to the Venice Commission’s remarks regarding the principle of proportionality. Now, requests for support in the state language must be submitted by at least ten attendees (audience members) of such an event no later than 72 hours before the event begins.
4) The changes also provide national minorities with the right to use their language in the field of advertising. Specifically, in populated areas where national minorities traditionally reside or constitute a significant part of the population, national minorities can distribute advertising in their language if it is duplicated in the state language. Moreover, the text written in the language of the national minority cannot exceed the volume or font size of the text in the state language. The bill does not specify what constitutes a “significant part” of the population. However, it does indicate that the Cabinet of Ministers should determine the list of populated areas where persons belonging to national minorities (communities) traditionally reside or where such persons constitute a significant part of the population.
5) In addition, the bill specifies the criteria based on which the Cabinet of Ministers should develop a methodology for the use of languages of national minorities in settlements where a significant number of their representatives reside. Specifically, the methodology should provide the opportunity for national minorities to use their language in interactions with local executive authorities and local self-government bodies. The methodology should be based on the fundamental provisions of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
6) It is envisaged that representatives of national minorities will be able to request communication in their language in the case of providing emergency assistance, help and protection to victims of domestic violence, care in nursing homes for older people, and so on, if such language is understandable to the parties. Previously, citizens had the right to seek assistance in the language of their national minority only if it was “acceptable (understandable)” to the parties involved. The Venice Commission requested the replacement of the word “acceptable” as it could be perceived ambiguously and potentially lead to conflicts. Therefore, in Bill No. 9610, the Ukrainian Parliament replaced this phrase with “if such language is understandable to the parties.”
7) The concept of a “specialized bookstore established to fulfill the rights of national minorities” has been introduced in the legislation. This is a specialized store for the sale of publishing products and printed media created to meet the cultural and language needs of national minorities. The authors specify that the activities of specialized bookstores are not subject to the requirements of the Law of Ukraine “On Protecting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language.” Therefore, they are not obliged to adhere to the legislatively prescribed quota for distributing Ukrainian-language products.
It is necessary to specify the status and the procedure for establishing such “specialized bookstores.” This is important because private bookstores may potentially abuse this status to avoid compliance with language legislation requirements.
8) The bill also expands the list of the State Policy objectives in the field of national minorities. According to the amendments introduced, the state guarantees support for the languages of national communities at risk of disappearing. The Cabinet of Ministers will develop a list of such languages.
According to this provision, the state will take into account the specific needs of each national minority. For example, due to the Russian invasion, the Greek national minority, which used to live compactly in the south of Ukraine, lost its unified space for communication. UNESCO has recognized the languages of the Greeks as endangered, which is why a systematic state policy is needed to preserve them.
9) The bill adds that individuals who identify themselves with the aggressor state will not be subject to the provisions of parts 2, 3, and 11 of Article 10 of this law, which pertain to the right of national minorities to hold public events and disseminate advertising in the language of the respective national minority. This restriction will be in effect during martial law and for a period of five years after its cessation.
The bill’s latest version has taken into account most of the recommendations from the Venice Commission, including those related to provisions on “specialized bookstores” and the use of languages of national minorities during dialogue with authorities. However, certain recommendations from the Commission were not incorporated, as they were controversial in the context of Ukraine and conflicted with other laws. For instance, the Venice Commission urged reducing language quotas on television because they “limit the freedom of expression” of national minorities as per Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (however, such quotas are considered necessary to strengthen the position of the Ukrainian language). The Venice Commission also recommended allowing political party candidates to disseminate campaign materials only in the language of national minorities without duplication in Ukrainian. This could potentially lead to the spread of campaign materials in the language of an aggressor state during elections, so, understandably, the Verkhovna Rada did not adopt this recommendation.
Furthermore, the Venice Commission has called on Ukrainian lawmakers to allow national minorities not to duplicate signs in Ukrainian in areas where these minorities traditionally reside, as this could become a “significant burden for anyone willing to communicate with the public” and, consequently, impede the exercise of the right to freedom of speech. In practice, this would mean discrimination against Ukrainians who do not speak the language of the national minority and would not be able to read the announcements. Another notable recommendation was the criticism of the language law, specifically its part 2 of Article 22: “Scientific publications are published in the state language, English, and/or other official languages of the European Union.” The Commission argued that this provision restricts academic freedom and freedom of speech as it does not allow researchers to publish their work in languages of national minorities that are not official EU languages. This recommendation was seen as a means of protecting Russian, Belarusian, and Yiddish, which the Commission specifically highlighted. Overall, the conclusions of the Venice Commission contained several questionable recommendations, so it is understandable that Parliament could not accommodate all of them.
Bill No. 9610 expands the rights of national minorities and enhances state protection and support for their languages. However, having the bill itself is not enough; it is essential to implement these provisions in practice, as emphasized by the Venice Commission in its recommendations. Within six months after the law’s adoption, the Cabinet of Ministers must prepare the necessary regulatory acts.
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