No Tower of Babel

You have to marvel at the zeal of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Less than a month after their last response* to events in Ukraine falsely accused a man of a criminal offence (under Article 161 of the Criminal Code – inciting ethnic and racial enmity) on the basis of an erroneous newspaper report, one might admittedly have hoped for a little more attention to detail. Nevertheless we must not spurn their neighbourly concern for Ukraine’s adherence to its international agreements.  Indeed, any suggestion that Ukraine – as represented by the highest legislative body in the country, the Constitutional Court, is not fulfilling its international commitments is a serious charge and must be examined. 

The judgment by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court which has so disturbed the Ministry was passed on 24 December 2007. It made it compulsory for all films being released on the Ukrainian market (including those in Russian) to have subtitles or dubbing in the State language (i.e. Ukrainian).  The Russian Ministry believes this to be “yet another confirmation of the lack of will by the Ukrainian authorities to fully and conscientiously implement their international commitments. The measures with regard to cinematography do not comply with Article 11 § 4 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which binds member states “to encourage and/or facilitate the production and distribution of audio and audiovisual works in the regional or minority languages”** 

The Ministry’s expertise on Ukraine’s legal matters does not end there.  The statement also expresses concern that some decisions by regional and city authorities in a number of Ukrainian regions have been found to not comply with the Constitution and have been appealed by the Prosecutor.

The Ministry saw no need to go into details however it would seem not entirely unworthy of note that it was Ukrainian courts who found the said decisions to be unconstitutional.  

We can perhaps set the Ministry’s mind at rest by mentioning an article which while perusing all regional media outlets, they appear to have missed. In an interview given to the well-known national newspaper “Dzerkalo tyzhnya” [“The Weekly Mirror”]***, Hasan Berbek, a high-ranking official of the Secretariat of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, explained that “According to the provisions of the Charter, only central state bodies have the authority to grant a language any particular status. … Only the central authorities of a state which has ratified the Charter are empowered to determine which language are to be deemed regional or minority and on what territory.”

The actions of Ukrainian courts in annulling unlawful rulings made by those with no authority to do so need therefore be of no concern to the Russian Ministry. 

It is regrettable that this article should have escaped the vigilant attention of the Russian Ministry’s staff, but such things happen..

Of particular interest, in our view, are Mr Berbek’s comments regarding the Charter and the situation in Eastern Europe. In his words: “When drawing up our charter, the situation in Western Europe did not allow for the kind of developments which we now observe in Eastern Europe, for example, in Ukraine. It is for this reason that in most articles of the charter we speak of languages which are traditional for that territory, but which are used to a lesser extent than the State language or languages”.

“In any case, however, none of the provisions of the charter should be seen as diminishing the significance of the State language.”

One would not suggest, of course, that either the Russian Ministry or those local authorities had any intention of undermining the significance of the Ukrainian language.  However with most people in the regions concerned using Russian in everyday life and with the publishing industry, the mass media and film industry being largely controlled by Russian business interests, it would be difficult to seriously question which language in fact requires protection.

A telling example here involves a university in Luhansk one of the regions recently prevented from declaring Russian a “regional language”.  Serhiy Melnychuk, a student from this university, was forced to go to court to uphold his right to be taught in the Ukrainian language.  We might mention that since the court ruling in his favour, Mr Melnychuk has been subjected to various forms of intimidation and pressure.

This is by no means the first time that concern has been expressed by the Russian authorities and media over Ukraine’s alleged treatment of minorities and their languages.  Reading certain articles, such as “Dictatorship of language”****, it’s hard not to suspect that the author simply landed in the wrong country and didn’t want to admit it to his boss. One senses that for some people the Charter and indeed the situation in Ukraine are somehow confined to a virtual realm in which contact with reality is of absolutely no importance. A journey by public transport in Kyiv for example, Ukraine’s capital city, will assuage all concerns about the threatened position of the Russian language.  It is much more disturbing how seldom one hears Ukrainian being spoken. 

The history of the film situation provides a vivid example of the situation.  In late 2006, film distributors refused to fulfil quotas for dubbing in Ukrainian rather than Russian, claiming that it was not financially viable for them.  After the Cabinet of Ministers failed to take any measures to ensure that the laws were adhered to, a civic initiative arose.  Within months a very large number of people had pledged to boycott any films dubbed in Russian rather than Ukrainian. 

The considerable number of people using the Russian language in their daily life makes it difficult not to treat claims that Russian speakers are discriminated against with scepticism. Such claims totally distort the real situation. The thing that strikes one in Ukraine is precisely the high level of tolerance with regard to language. On television and radio you hear people speaking the language they feel most comfortable in, with a question put in Russian being answered in Ukrainian, or vice versa.  The well-known Russian TV presenter Savik Shuster, after being effectively hounded out of the Russia media, moved to Ukraine where he continued his extremely popular “Freedom of speech” programme.  No pressure on what to think or say, and none whatsoever on the language used.

It is possible that the Russian Federation authorities have not yet found time to fully analyze the requirements of the Regional Charter.  It is to be hoped that they will shortly do so and can join Ukraine and other European states in ratifying this important document.

In the meantime, we feel that a mere visit to Ukraine would clarify certain apparent misconceptions and help to avoid statements which are far removed from the truth. We can only welcome such visits and would assure the respected Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they need fear no linguistic barrier, nor, we hope, any other difficulties in understanding.

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

*    Incendiary devices




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