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Tags: Russia | Ukraine | ukraine | minorities

Ukraine's Policy on Minorities Still in the Making

the ukrainian president smiling in a group of people
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (Getty Images)

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz By Friday, 10 July 2020 10:04 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Ukraine is a post-Soviet society in search of a strong national identity. Therefore, its national minorities policy is a project in the making. While avowedly upholding in theory the equality of all citizens before law, Kyiv tends to differentiate between various minorities. It approaches them in congruence with its perceived interests and the needs of its domestic and foreign policy.

The Crimean Tatar minority is a case in point. Ukraine treated them rather decently. Then Russia invaded, reincorporated Crimea, and cracked down on the Tatars, who tend to remain loyal to Kyiv. The Ukrainian government now makes a special point to show its strong support to the part of the community who either left or was forced to flee across the cordon from the Russian-occupied area. Further, Ukrainians monitor closely the developments in Crimea, in particular the persecution of the Tatar minority there.

There is a difference, naturally, between official policy and popular attitudes. The latter may not reflect the former. For example, one hears about occasional anti-Jewish grunts from the grassroots, cultural, political, and social. But they are usually confined to fringes, and rarely surface into the mainstream. The government's attitude toward the Jewish minority is overall friendly. Jews enjoys freedom individually and collectively in Ukraine. Many people and most certainly the current government, a beneficiary of the Maidan revolution of 2014, fondly remembers the "Jewish Hundred," a volunteer unit that fought for Ukraine's independence. It is also common to find prominent politicians of Jewish extraction there, for instance the current president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was chosen for the highest office in the land in a free election.

To a certain extent, a benign attitude to the Jewish minority expresses Ukraine's desire to join the West, including NATO and the European Union. Virtually, no one in the United States would countenance and welcome an anti-Semitic state in our ranks. However, there are other minorities that do not elicit similar consideration.

Take the Russian speakers, for example. Most consider themselves Ukrainian even though they do not speak the language. Some choose to call themselves Russians, though. The latter are sponsored by Moscow. Vladimir Putin has taken them under his wing.

Kiyv is in a tight spot. It yearns for unity, but it can't exactly make up its mind how to avoid the pitfalls of integral nationalism. One of the first acts after overthrowing the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 was to proclaim Ukrainian the official language of the nation. That excluded, among others, the Russian speakers. Problem was that many of them, if not most, supported Ukraine over Russia. Many active Russophones have proved to be the staunchest volunteer fighters on the eastern front against Putin's "little green men." Ironically, they were also fighting against other Russian speakers of almost identical cultural and linguistic background. The latter simply chose Russia and secession. Putin thanked them by keeping the frozen conflict going and distributing Russian passports to all under his de facto jurisdiction.

Ukraine argues that imposing Ukrainian language will promote national cohesiveness and enhance the country's security and independence. That may be the case perhaps in western Ukraine, but central and eastern parts of the state speak either plain Russian or a hybrid of Russian and Ukrainian: a patois known as surzhok.

Given that many volunteer fighters did not have to know Ukrainian to feel Ukrainian and bleed for Ukraine, linguistic purism does not feel warranted. It is also not the most productive way to foster the loyalty of national minorities. Yet, in 2017, Kiyv introduced a law "On Education" greatly curtailing the ability of local people to school their children in native languages.

Ukrainian language greatly curtailed the freedom of self-expression of the Bulgars, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, and others. They self-organize and some at least can count on their fellow ethnics from abroad.

In particular, the Hungarian government consistently and firmly defends the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine. About 150,000 them reside in contiguous regions along the western border, the Transcarpathia, victims of post-World War I partitioning. This is an Intermarium phenomenon known as never having to leave one's home, while changing citizenship, or, more precisely, having one foisted on himself. Hence, 97% of local Hungarians list Hungarian as their mother tongue and admit to using it in everyday transactions.

When Kiyv cracked down on cultural autonomy of the Hungarians of Transcarpathia, Budapest retaliated by freezing Ukraine's negotiations to enter NATO. The Hungarian government also issued Hungarian passports to whoever wanted them and stimulated cross-border economic, social, and cultural cooperation, favoring ethnic Hungarians and their businesses. It took the Ukrainians about five years to relent. There is even talk about creating an autonomous region for the Hungarians within Ukraine centered on Berehov in Transcarpathia. We shall see.

Meanwhile, emboldened by Hungary's success, the Bulgarian government chimed in in support of Ukraine's Bulgars, perhaps 200,000 of whom live mostly in Bolhrad/Bolgrad and its environs around Odessa in the south. There Kiyv has endeavored to implement an administrative reform that would jeopardize the cohesiveness of the Bulgarian minority and undercut its cultural projects. The Ukrainian government quickly agreed to negotiations and assured its Bulgarian counterparts that the rights of the Bulgarian minority would not be violated. They'd better not be, as Bulgaria is also a member of NATO.

Rumania likewise periodically perks up in support of ethnic Rumanians in Ukraine, although, admittedly, not as firmly as Hungary. Only Poland chooses not to put pressure on Ukraine as far as Polish minority. Warsaw treats Kiyv as a strategic partner and feels that minority issues detract from a larger picture, namely, the Russian threat. Consequently, there have been no property restitution for the Poles; they also chafe under the language and education laws. Lastly, the Catholic Church continues to be disadvantaged as far as returning its temples and other properties. Ukraine's Poles are pretty much on their own.

It is in the interest of the Republic of Ukraine to adhere to civilized norms and keep its national minorities happy. Then Kiyv will prove that it wants belong with us. Otherwise, it should seek an alternative arrangement.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports – More Here.

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MarekJanChodakiewicz
While avowedly upholding in theory the equality of all citizens before law, Kyiv tends to differentiate between various minorities.
ukraine, minorities
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2020-04-10
Friday, 10 July 2020 10:04 AM
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