Language policy in Ukraine

Language policy in Ukraine is based on its Constitution, international obligations, and since 16 July 2019 the Law of Ukraine "to ensure the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language". From 2012 until February 2018, the language policy of Ukraine was also based on Law on the Principles of the State language policy [uk] (before 2012, the 1989 Law on the Languages in the Ukrainian SSR was in force).[1] The Ukrainian language is the State language of Ukraine. According to the article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the State has to ensure the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine. Other languages spoken in Ukraine are guaranteed constitutional protection. Russian is recognized as the language of a national minority.[2]

A 2012 law, called the law "On the principles of the State language policy" gave the status of regional language to Russian and other minority languages. It allowed the use of minority languages in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the national minorities exceed 10% of the population.[3][4] The law was used mostly in Ukraine's southern and eastern regions, where predominant or significant parts of the population speak Russian as their first language.[4] Three minor settlements did the same for Hungarian, Moldovan and Romanian.[5] Ukrainian remained the only official country-wide language.[4] Introduction of the law was supported by the governing Party of regions and opposed by the opposition parties. According to its opponents, the law undermined and supplanted the role of the Ukrainian language, and violated Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution.[6][7][8]

The bill was adopted amid fistfights in the Ukrainian Parliament building on 3 July 2012, and the opposition said that the procedure of adopting the law was not respected.[9][10] The law came into force on 10 August 2012.[3] Since then various cities and regions of Ukraine declared Russian a regional language in their jurisdictions.[5] Other cities and regions declared their opposition to this law.[11] Immediately after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, on 23 February 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to repeal the law. This decision was vetoed by the acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who instead ordered drafting of a new law to "accommodate the interests of both eastern and western Ukraine and of all ethnic groups and minorities."[12][13] However, in October 2014 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine started reviewing the constitutionality of the law,[14] and on 28 February 2018 it ruled the law unconstitutional.[15]

In April 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted a new law, the Law of Ukraine "to ensure the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the State language". On 16 June 2019, the law entered into force. The law made the use of Ukrainian compulsory (totally or within certain quotas) in the work of some public authorities, in the electoral procedures and political campaigning, in pre-school, school and university education, in scientific, cultural and sporting activities, in book publishing and book distribution, in printed mass media, television and radio broadcasting, in economic and social life (commercial advertising, public events), in hospitals and nursing homes, and in the activities of political parties and other legal entities (e.g. non-governmental organizations) registered in Ukraine.[16] Some special exemptions are provided for the Crimean Tatar language, other languages of indigenous peoples of Ukraine, the English language and the other official languages of the European Union; as languages of minorities that are not EU official languages, Russian, Byelorussian and Yiddish are excluded from the exemptions.[16]


Percentage of native speakers of Russian from the 2001 census. Russian was a regional language in 13 regions (shaded) with 10% or higher before the repeal of the 2012 languages law.[13]

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, the Russian language has dwindled. In 2001 it remained one of the two most used languages for business, legal proceedings, science, artistry, and many other spheres of everyday life. According to the 2001 census, 67.5% of the citizens of Ukraine regarded Ukrainian as their native language, with Russian being considered the native language for another 29.6%. Various other languages constituted the remaining 2.9%.[17]

Soviet eraEdit

During the Soviet era, the status of Ukrainian was legally codified in 1922, when Ukrainian and Russian were declared to be of "national significance" and schools were allowed to use them both in teaching; they were never adopted as official languages of Soviet Ukraine but had formally equal status as "generally used languages".[18] In practice, however, Ukrainian was mainly a rural language and had lower prestige than Russian, which was the language of the educated urban society. After an initial phase of official commitment to Ukrainization in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet era was marked by an increasing trend toward Russification.[18] In 1938 the study of Russian was made obligatory and in 1958 the study of the mother-tongue was made optional. From 1959 to 1989, on average 60-70% of the population spoke Ukrainian and 20% spoke Russian; Yiddish was also widely spoken by the decreasing Jewish population (from 14% in 1959 to 3.9% in 1989).[18]

1989 Law of the LanguagesEdit

On 28 October 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR adopted the "Law of Languages". The Ukrainian language was declared the only official language, while the other languages spoken in Ukraine were guaranteed constitutional protection. The government was obliged to create the conditions required for the development and use of Ukrainian language as well as languages of other ethnic groups, including Russian. Usage of other languages, along with Ukrainian, was allowed in local institutions located in places of residence of the majority of citizens of the corresponding ethnicities.[clarification needed] Citizens were guaranteed the right to use their native or any other languages and were entitled to address various institutions and organisations in Ukrainian, in Russian, or in another language of their work, or in a language acceptable to the parties. Following the Ukrainian independence and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the law, with some minor amendments, remained in force in the independent Ukrainian state.[19]

Ukrainian ConstitutionEdit

The Constitution of Ukraine, adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on 28 June 1996, states at article 10: "The state language of Ukraine is the Ukrainian language. The State ensures the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine. In Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed".[2]

2012 Law on the Principles of the State Language PolicyEdit

On 7 February 2012 members of the Verkhovna Rada Serhii Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnychenko (both from the Party of Regions) entered a bill (commonly called "Kolesnychenko-Kivalov language bill"), that would have given the status of regional language to Russian and other minority languages. It allowed the use of minority languages in courts, schools and other government institutions in areas of Ukraine where the national minorities exceed 10% of the population.[3][4]

Supporters of the 2012 bill argued it would have made life easier for Russian-speaking Ukrainians.[20] Opponents feared that the adoption of Russian as a minority language could have spread rapidly, challenging Ukrainian and causing splits between eastern and western Ukraine.[21] In practice Russian at the time was already used widely[specify] in official establishments in Ukraine.[22]

"On the principles of the state language policy"[23]
Verkhovna Rada
Signed byViktor Yanukovych[23]
Signed8 August 2012
Effective10 August 2012
Legislative history
BillBill n. 9073, "On the principles of the state language policy"[24]
Introduced byKolesnychenko and Kivalov
First reading5 June 2012[23]
Second reading3 July 2012[23]
28 February 2018
Status: Repealed

In May 2012 Vadym Kolesnichenko, one of the authors of the 2012 language law, claimed that the law was supported by several higher education bodies, scientists and NGOs.[25] On 9 February 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him and another author of the language law, Serhiy Kivalov, with the Medal of Pushkin for their "great contribution to the preservation and promotion of the Russian language and culture abroad".[26]

Some say that the bill contradicts the Constitution of Ukraine, violates the Budget Code, and aims to annihilate the Ukrainian language. It suffered a criticism in the conclusions of state authorities and their departments: the Main Scientific-Expert Bureau of the Ukrainian Parliament (23 May 2012),[27] the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Spirituality (September 23, 2011), the Parliamentary Committee on Budget (3 November 2011), Ministry of Finance (9 September 2011), the Ministry of Justice (27 September 2011).[28] The bill also failed to obtain the support of the specialized institutions of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine: the Linguistics Institute, the Institute of the Ukrainian Language, the Institute of political and ethno-national researches, the Shevchenko Institute of Literature, the Institute of State and Law, the Ukrainian linguistic-informational Fund, the Philology Institute of Kyiv University, and the Academy of Sciences of the High School of Ukraine.[28]

Opinion adopted by the Venice CommissionEdit

In December 2011, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued an opinion on the draft law questioning whether the parallel use of Ukrainian and Russian was in compliance with article 10 of the Constitution:[29] "the question remains whether [...] there are sufficient guarantees, in the current Draft Law, for the consolidation of the Ukrainian language as the sole State language, and of the role it has to play in the Ukrainian multilinguistic society".[29]

Ukrayinska Pravda reported that the Venice Commission did not find in the draft law enough guarantees for the protection of the Ukrainian language,[30] and that the Commission had come to the conclusion that the proposed law was just "another tool of the election campaign" for the Party of Regions.[31] Kolesnichenko, one of the authors of the law, claimed that the Opinion was "generally supportive",[32] but the opponents noted that it contained strong criticism about the failure to protect the role of Ukrainian as the State language.[33][34]

Fight in parliamentEdit

Prior to 24 May 2012, there were rumors that a revision of the legislation on languages would take place in parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) and that the Secretary of National Security and Defense would attend the session.[35] Some 1,000 protesters gathered just outside the Verkhovna Rada building setting up another tent city.[36] State law enforcement warned the protesters not to establish a tent city.[37]

At the evening session, the parliamentary opposition in the Verkhovna Rada (Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense Bloc) blocked the main tribune in parliament as some representatives from the Party of Regions surrounded the presidium. The speaker was forced to announce a break in the session. After the break, Member of Parliament Vyacheslav Kyrylenko read a statement of the united opposition not to conduct any hearings regarding language issues. After the law draft #10154 "On the state language of Ukraine" was not adopted onto the daily agenda, Kyrylenko withdrew his draft #9059 "Prohibition of narrowing the sphere of use of Ukrainian language" from a revision, while Kolesnichenko gave a presentation on his draft #9073. The head of the Committee On Issues of Culture and Spirituality Volodymyr Yavorivsky disclosed the decision of the committee to reject the bill #9073 as it was the decision of the committee's majority. He pointed to the fact that the law draft in fact will introduce a bilingual situation in number of regions. However, after a review, the bill was supported by the parliamentary majority which showed its support in adopting two state languages: Ukrainian and Russian. The parliamentary minority and the deputy group "Reforms for the Future" stayed in opposition to the bill. Parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn was forced to hastily close[38] the session as further discussion descended into another fight[39] leaving some members of parliament injured.[40][41]

The Party of Regions released a statement to the press where it accused the opposition of impeding the enactment of a bill that protects some constitutional rights of millions of citizens of Ukraine.[42] PoR leader in parliament Yefremov promised to revisit the issue once everything is stable.[43]


The bill was eventually adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on second reading on 3 July 2012; it was supported by the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Lytvyn Bloc, while it was strongly opposed by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defence Bloc. The bill was to come into force only after it was signed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the Chairman of Parliament.[4] But the Chairman of Parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn tendered his resignation on 4 July 2012.[4] However, the Verkhovna Rada twice held votes of confidence in the speaker, and did not accept his resignation.[44] On 31 July, Lytvyn signed the law.[44] The bill was signed by President Yanukovych on 8 August 2012.[45] The law came into force on 10 August 2012.[3] Since then, various Ukrainian cities and regions have declared Russian a regional language in their jurisdictions, these being the municipalities of Odessa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhia, Sevastopol, Dnipropetrovsk, Luhansk and Krasny Luch; and the Oblasts of Odessa, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk.[5] Hungarian has been made a regional language in the town of Berehove in the Zakarpattia Oblast, Moldovan in the village of Tarasivtsi (Chernivtsi Oblast),[5] and Romanian in the village of Bila Tserkva; also in the Zakarpattia Oblast.[5] These languages will now be used in city/Oblast administrative office work and documents.[5] As of September 2012 there were no plans for such bilingualism in Kyiv.[46] Chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea Volodomyr Konstantinov stated in March 2013 that the August 2012 law had changed nothing in Crimea.[47]

Attempted repeal of the lawEdit

On February 23, 2014, the second day after the flight of Viktor Yanukovich, while in a parliamentary session, a deputy from the Batkivshchyna party, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, moved to include in the agenda a bill to repeal the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy". The motion was carried with 86% of the votes in favour—232 deputies in favour vs 37 opposed against the required minimum of 226 of 334 votes. The bill was included in the agenda, immediately put to a vote with no debate and approved with the same 232 voting in favour. The bill would have made Ukrainian the sole state language at all levels.[12][48] Still, all the minority languages (including Russian) remain explicitly protected under article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution. The repeal would also bring back into force the previous law on languages, which was in place in Ukraine for 23 years before July 2012 and was regulating the use of the minority languages.

However, the move to repeal the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy" provoked negative reactions in Crimea and in some regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine. It became one of the topics of the protests against the new government approved by the parliament after the flight of Viktor Yanukovich.[49]

Passage of the repeal bill was met with regret by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.[50] The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities expressed concern over possible further unrest. He also proposed to give advice and facilitate discussions on new legislation, declaring that "we must avoid the mistakes made last time [in 2012] when unbalanced legislation was adopted without a proper dialogue in the Verkhovna Rada."[51] The bill was also criticized by the Ambassador for Human Rights of the Russian foreign ministry.[52] Bulgarian and Romanian foreign ministers evaluated it as a step in the wrong direction,[53] and the Greek foreign minister expressed disappointment.[54] The Hungarian foreign ministry expressed serious concerns, noting that the decision "could question the commitment of the new Ukrainian administration towards democracy".[55] The Polish foreign minister called it a mistake.[56] According to Uilleam Blacker writing for openDemocracy, the repeal bill contained no specific threat to the Russian language.[57][58]

After urgently ordering a working group to draft a replacement law on February 27, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov declared on 3 March that he will not be signing the repeal bill until a replacement law is adopted.[59][60] Since then the repeal bill has not been signed nor vetoed by the President, and its status has long remained "ready for sign".[61]

On 7 April 2014, Batkivshchyna leader Yulia Tymoshenko stated she supported the 2012 language law.[62] On 3 November 2014, newly elected president Petro Poroshenko declared that the language policy in Ukraine will be amended.[63]

Law declared unconstitutionalEdit

On 10 July 2014, 57 parliamentary deputies appealed the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to review the 2012 law "On the principles of the state language policy".[14] On 10 October 2014, the court opened the proceedings on the constitutionality of the law.[14] On 14 December 2016, the Constitutional Court ended the oral proceedings, and on 13 January 2017, moved to the closed part of the process.[14] On 28 February 2018, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruled the law unconstitutional.[15]

2015 ''Decommunization law''Edit

In April 2015, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law banning communist as well as Nazi propaganda and symbols.[64] The names of cities, villages, streets and squares that referred to communist slogans and leaders fell under the ban and had to be changed.[65] According to Volodymyr Viatrovych, who had inspired the law, in October 2016 Ukraine's toponymy had undergone a complete process of decommunization, including in the Donbas region.[66] Former Dnipropetrovsk became Dnipro, and Kirovohrad became Kropyvnytskyi. The de-Russification of Ukrainian toponymy implied also the removal from railways and airports of any information board written in Russian; as of December 2016, all information had to be given only in Ukrainian and English. Free Ukrainian language courses for civil servants working in the Donetsk regional administration were organised, and from January 2017 Ukrainian became the only language of official and interpersonal communication in public institutions.[66]

2016 Ukrainian language quotas in radio broadcastingEdit

In June 2016, a new law was enacted requiring Ukraine's radio stations to play a quota of Ukrainian-language songs each day. At least a quarter of a radio station's daily playlist had to be in Ukrainian from then on, rising to 30% in 12 months' time and 35% a year after that. The law also required TV and radio broadcasters to ensure at least 60% of programs such as news and analysis are in Ukrainian.[67] The law entered into force on 9 November, the national day for Ukrainian Language and Literacy.[66] President Petro Poroshenko hailed the law calling on people to share their favourite Ukrainian song on social medias,[68] while the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc criticised the law and said people had the right to decide for themselves what to listen to, and in which language.[67] According to The Economist, the passage of a law downgrading Russian in Ukraine could have helped "spark war in that country; Vladimir Putin has used it as evidence that Ukrainian nationalists are bent on wiping out Russian culture there."[69]

In May 2017, Verkhovna Rada enacted an analogous law prescribing a 75% Ukrainian-language quotas in all television channels operating in Ukraine.[66]

2017 Education LawEdit

Ukraine's 2017 education law made Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade on, although it allows instruction in other languages as a separate subject,[70][71][72] to be phased in 2023.[73] Since 2017, the Hungary–Ukraine relations rapidly deteriorated over the issue of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.[74] The education law received criticism and has been accused of being nationalistic and needlessly provocative;[75] Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has defended the law, claiming that "The law ensures equal opportunities for all... It guarantees every graduate strong language skills essential for a successful career in Ukraine".[70]

The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) analyzed the law and formulated seven recommendations to the Ukrainian Government to amend the law; according to the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine has implemented six of these seven recommendations as of 2019.[76]

Lviv OblastEdit

In September 2018 Lviv Oblast Council introduced a ban on the public use of the Russian-language cultural products (movies, books, songs, etc.) throughout the Lviv Oblast until the full cessation of the occupation of Ukraine's territory.[77] Human rights activists and lawyers called the law ill-defined, illegal, and unconstitutional.[78] The Lviv Regional Council decision was successfully challenged in an Administrative Court, among others by the Chuhuiv Human Rights Group, but on 14 May 2019 the judgment of the Administrative Court was revoked on technical grounds by the Cassation Chamber of the Supreme Court of Ukraine.[78] The Chuhuiv Human Rights Group announced that they would file a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights against the ban.[78] The ban was overturned in January 2019 by a court.[79]

2019 Law on Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State LanguageEdit

"On Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language"
Poroshenko signing the law. Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Andriy Parubiy is on the left.
Verkhovna Rada
Signed byPetro Poroshenko
Signed15 May 2019
Effective16 July 2019[80]
Legislative history
Bill5670-d, "On Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language"
First reading4 October 2018
Second reading25 April 2019
Status: In force

First voteEdit

On 4 October 2018, the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) voted with a majority of 261 MPs in the first reading of a new language law (bill n. 5670-d, "On Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language"[81]). Thereafter, the bill "was prepared for second reading for about four months. During this time, the Verkhovna Rada's committee on culture and spirituality worked out over 2,000 amendments to the document that were proposed by people's deputies. In particular, the document proposes creating the national commission on the standards of the state language and introducing the post of commissioner for the protection of the state language. Lawmakers started considering the document at second reading on February 28. The Verkhovna Rada continue[d] to review amendments to the bill during March 12–15 [2019]."[82] The Council of Europe asked the Verkhovna Rada to postpone the adoption of the bill until the post-election period.[83]

Second vote and signatureEdit

On 25 April 2019, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the law.[84][85] Patriarch Filaret and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko were present in the parliament during the vote.[86][87] On the same day pro-Russian members of the Ukrainian Parliament blocked the chairman, Andriy Parubiy, from signing it by introducing two draft resolutions to repeal the law. "If parliament d[id] not support these resolutions, [Parliament chairman] Andriy Parubiy ha[d] the right to sign the law and forward it to the President of Ukraine to get his signature on it."[88] In total, four appeals to cancel the law were submitted, and it was planned that the parliament would vote on those on 14 May 2019. Parubiy declared that after the parliament will have rejected those appeals, he will sign the law and that the Ukrainian President will sign it "without delay."[89]

Then President Petro Poroshenko called the adoption of the law by the Ukrainian parliament "a historic decision"[90] and said he would sign the law as soon as he received it from parliament.[91] Poroshenko also said that the law "would not have been approved without Andriy Parubiy".[92]

Poroshenko showing the law signed. Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Andriy Parubiy is on the left.

Parliament chairman Parubiy signed the law on 14 May 2019, after the four draft bills to cancel the bill n. 5670-d were rejected by parliament.[93][94] Parubiy said that the law "will be signed by the president of Ukraine in the coming hours or days."[93] On 15 May 2019, President Poroshenko, in his last week in office, signed the law.[95][96]

On 21 June 2019, the Constitutional Court received a petition from 51 members of the Ukrainian Parliament demanding that the law be checked for constitutionality. On 14 July 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled the law as constitutional.[97]


The law regulates the Ukrainian language in the media, education, and business aiming to strengthen its role in a country where much of the public still speaks Russian.[98]

The law requires print and online publications to be either exclusively in Ukrainian or have a Ukrainian translation, unless they are in Crimean Tatar, in English or in any of the official languages of the European Union.[99] Films produced in Ukraine must be in Ukrainian, and foreign films must be dubbed into Ukrainian unless they meet certain standards set out by the Ukrainian authorities.[99] TV and film distribution firms must ensure 90% of their content is in Ukrainian.

Publishing houses are required to print, and book stores are required to sell, at least 50% of their books in Ukrainian.[99][100]

All cultural, artistic, recreational and entertainment events must be in Ukrainian, unless the use of other languages is justified for artistic reasons or for the purpose of protecting ethnic minority languages.[99][16] All schools and universities are required to teach in Ukrainian, although special exemptions apply to certain ethnic minority languages, to English and to other official languages of the European Union.

Contrary to the minority languages which are EU official languages, Russian, Belarusian and Yiddish are granted no exemption for the purposes of the law.[16]


Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said the law was "unacceptable" and "part of Poroshenko's anti-Hungarian policy".[101]

The European Commission intends to study and give its assessment to the law.[102] On 22 May 2019, the Chair of the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked the Venice Commission to analyze the law.[103] In December 2019 the Venice Commission said that several provisions of the law failed to strike a fair balance between promoting the Ukrainian language and safeguarding minorities' linguistic rights.[104]

The court of Kyiv declined the appeal from an NGO to ban Andriy Parubiy from signing the law and to ban the law's publication.[105]

Russia asked the President of the UN Security Council to convene a meeting over the adoption by Ukraine's parliament of the law.[106]

In January 2022 Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about protection for minority languages.[107]


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Further readingEdit

  • Shandra, Alya (25 April 2019). "Ukraine adopts law expanding scope of Ukrainian language ·". Euromaidan Press. Retrieved 26 December 2019.
  • Maksimovtsova, Ksenia (2019). "Chapter 3.1: The Characteristics of Language Policy in Ukraine after the USSR Disintegration". Language Conflicts in Contemporary Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society. Vol. 205. Stuttgart: ibidem. pp. 119–158. ISBN 978-3-8382-1282-1.
  • Reznik, Vladislava (2018). "Language Policy in Independent Ukraine: A Battle for National and Linguistic Empowerment". In Andrews, Ernest (ed.). Language Planning in the Post-Communist Era: The Struggles for Language Control in the New Order in Eastern Europe, Eurasia and China. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 169–192. ISBN 978-3-319-70925-3.
  • Flier, Michael; Graziosi, Andrea, eds. (2017). The battle for Ukrainian: a comparative perspective. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-1-932650-17-4. OCLC 992563580.

External linksEdit

Important documents