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REPORT: Post-Soviet Language Wars in Comparative and Geopolitical Perspective, Parts 1 and 2 (complete)

by Gordon M. Hahn


Russia’s new federal law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’ passed by the State Duma and Federation Council in late July and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in August caused considerable controversy in Russia and some quarters in the West. The new Latvian law on education caused much less stir abroad generally but caused sizable demonstrations in Latvia and official Russian protests against what is viewed as yet another form of discrimination against ethnic Russians in Latvia and the Baltic states more broadly. Ukraine also adopted new legislation touching on language use, which serves as a good marker for the Maidan regime’s transition to democracy, the rule of law and a civil rather than an ethnic state. How do these laws actually reflect the state of democracy, the rule of law, civil versus ethnic state-building, and ethnic minority rights in these three countries? This article is an attempt to answer this comparative question and flesh out the international and geopolitical implications of the answer.

It is a fact of political life (though not a norm of international law) that smaller ethnic minorities tend to enjoy fewer rights and privileges in comparison with the majority than do larger ethnic minorities in relation to the majority. This is because law affecting minority rights is a political outcome, and the smaller the community the less likely they will possess the resources necessary to mobilize and lobby political pressure to shape legislative outcomes. Assuming all else — including the responsiveness of the government and the ethnic majority to ethnic minority preferences and rights — a state with a small minority population is less likely to afford minorities as many rights as a government in a country with a larger ethnic minority population. This especially true if the minority population consists of one or a small number of ethnic minority groups, affording the state and the ethnic majority fewer opportunities to divide and rule the minorities.  Thus, a state with a larger ethnic majority and numerous ethnic minorities will tend to afford minorities fewer right. A state with a smaller ethnic majority and a larger ethnic minority population is likely to afford the minority population greater rights. A state with no majority ethnic population but rather a plurality will tend towards the same outcome. How do these theoretical propositions play out in the three states in this study? What does the comparative result say about the relative state of democracy on the issue of minority rights as well as of civil state-building in the three states.

A Comparison of Ethnic Minority Populations and Ethnic Minority Languages in Latvia, Ukraine and Russia

To answer these questions we need to look at the comparative demographics of our three subject countries’ ethnic minorities and their languages present status prior to recent legal amendments coming into force. The Russian Federation’s total population is almost 81 percent self- identified ethnic Russians. there are also other large ethnic groups. Some 3.9 percent of Russian citizens are Tartars, 1.4 percent – Ukrainians, 1.2 percent – Bashkirs, 1.1 percent – Chuvashiyans and 1.0 percent Chechens. There are another 179 ethnic minorities — most of them indigenous — living in Russia. 3.9 percent of the population did not declare any ethnic origin (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/russia-population/). There are 36 languages having state language status in Russia. Russian is the state language countrywide. In addition, 35 minority languages have state status at the national republic or national district level, which affords them special status in the respective territorial-administrative units or ‘national autonomies,’ including national minority language study financed from both the republic and federal state budgets.

Ukrainians make up nearly 77.8 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Russians make up the bulk of the non-Ukrainian 22.2 percent minority population and are the second largest nationality with almost 17 percent of the population. Other minorities include: Belorussians – 0.6 percent, Bulgarians – 0.4 percent, Hungarians – 0.3 percent, Crimean Tatars – 0.5 percent, and Romanians and Poles each make up 0.3 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Jews comprise 0.2 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Other minorities present are 1.8 percent. The major language is Ukrainian, spoken by 67 percent of the population, while the second most common language is Russian, spoken by 24 percent of the total population. The remaining 9 percent is comprised of various other languages (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/ukraine-population/). These statistics include Crimea’s population. Excluding Crimea’s population of some 2.4 million with 2 million being ethnic Russians, then ethnic Ukrainians comprise some 80 percent of Crimea-less Ukraine’s population and ethnic Russians – some 13 percent. In surveys that include the dual category “Russian and Ukrainian,” which holds for many in Ukraine, ‘Russian’ was chosen by some 22 percent in 2014, and 13 percent in 2017, while the mixed category has remained fairly stable around 17-18 percent. As of 2015, Ukraine had 621 schools that taught in Russian, 78 in Romanian, 68 in Hungarian and five in Polish, according to education ministry data (http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/73272).

Latvia’s total population is less than 2 million: 1,952,294. Ethnic Latvians comprise 62 percent of the total population, minorities – 38 percent. Ethnic Russians comprise a large majority of the non-Latvian minority population, comprising 26.9  percent of Latvia’s total population. Belarusians comprise 3.3 percent, Ukrainians – 2.2 percent, Poles – 2.2 percent, Lithuanians – 1.2 percent, Jews – 0.2 percent, and Romani – 0.3 percent of the Latvian population (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/latvia-population/). However, as many as 36 percent of the population has declared the Russian language to be their native tongue (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/04/76059-tolko-latyshskiy). Under Latvia’s bilingual language regime extant before the recent amendments, Russian majority-populated schools could offer the majority of subjects at the lower level classes in Russian, with the percentage declining as students graduated to higher classes. In the higher classes in secondary education, 40 percent of subjects were taught in Russian and 60 percent in Latvian. Each school could decide what courses were taught in which language (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/04/76059-tolko-latyshskiy). Also, it is important to recall that 200,000 residents of Latvia, or 13 % of the country’s voting-age residents, are ‘stateless,’ having been ‘imported’ by Soviet power into the Latvian SSR and therefore denied Latvian citizenship and voting rights under the independent Latvian government after 1991. Almost all are ethnic Russians and less than 0.5 percent are ethnic Latvians. Citizenship could be required only by passing examinations on the Latvian language and history and living certain required minimum in Latvia afterwards.

In sum, the minority population in Russia is significantly smaller than that in Latvia, slightly smaller than that in Ukraine.


Country                           Total Population                   Minority Population                   Ethnic Russian Population


Russia .                             143,959,979                       27, 360,000 (19%) estimate          126,599,000 (81%) estimate

Ukraine*                             41,500,000                       35,200,000 (80%)                               5,400,000 (13%) estimate

Latvia                                    1,952,294                            819,000 (38%) estimate           604,805 (26.9%) estimate


*estimated minus Crimea


SOURCE: World Population Review, http://worldpopulationreview.com.


Thus, we would expect that minorities in Russia — especially if one takes into account the additional factor of its less responsive soft authoritarian regime type — would have the most difficult time breaking through the dominance of the ethnic Russian majority and the state apparatus it dominates. After Russia, Ukraine’s Russian minority — similar in size to Russia’s total minority population but not fractured into more than a hundred indigenous ethnic minorities —  expectedly would do better, and we would predict that Latvia’s larger ethnic Russian minority would be able to win even more language rights.

It is important to add that there are no geographically concentrated Ukrainian or Latvian populations, as there are ethnic Russian and Russophone populations geographically concentrated especially in Ukraine’s east in Donbass and the southeast, but also in some Latvian regions. So there can be no reciprocal expectation that Ukrainian and Latvian minority language rights should or could realistically receive significant state support. In order to conclude whether or not or comparative expectation as to language rights outcomes pans out, we need to look at the three countries’ respective recently amended laws touching on language.

Russian Law on Minority Languages in Education

According to the 2018 amendments to Russia’s Law ‘On Education,’ Russian law allows but no longer makes mandatory the study in primary, secondary, and higher education of minority (non-Russian) languages. More specifically, the law’s Article 14 ‘The Language of Education’ allows and guarantees the right to “the teaching and study of the state languages of the national republics” in schools located in Russia’s 22 national republics along with the Russian language as it is the state language of the entire Russian Federation. At the same time, the law’s Article 14.4 provides “a citizen” “the right to receive pre-school, primary general and basic general education in their native language from among the number of languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation as well as the right to the study their native language from among the number of languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation within the limits of the possibilities available in the educational system” (http://zakon-ob-obrazovanii.ru/14). In other words, taking the Tatar language as an example, if one’s native language, as is the case in Tatarstan, is also a state language of the Republic of Tatarstan, then one has the right to both study some subjects in the Tatar language and study the Tatar language in state and private schools. Parents of students therefore have the right to choose or ‘opt-in’ to courses of study in, and of their native language or the state language of the republic. Otherwise, all subjects are taught in Russian, and the study of Russian is mandatory for all students and cannot suffer from study of republican state and minority language study, the law stipulates.

The only way that this right can be lost legally is through claimed budget or space restrictions that go beyond ‘the limits of the possibilities available in the educational system.’ This is possible, but very unlikely in the national republics, especially those with large titular nationality populations as in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, and North Osssetiya. Dagestan, with 14 ‘larger’ native nationalities alone, is a special case and potentially a problem. There is no state language other than Russian in Dagestan. It would be difficult for a school inside or outside the republic with a student population including a native Dagestani language or many Dagestani languages — whether Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Tabasaran, and so on — to offer study in, and of all those languages. Thus,  Dagestani language study issues could become a political problem as well, especially if the different minorities are dissatisfied with the new federal law and, however unlikely, be able to overcome differences to coordinate pressure to change it. Another problem would be for, say, an Chuvashiyan living in St. Petersburg to receive an education in the Chuvash language or study Chuvash in a state or private educational institution given the enormous resources (financial and teaching personnel) that would be provided for every minority student in a school the opportunity to study in their native language or study their native language.

At the same time, there are possibilities for organizing non-Russian minority and state language lessons for children as low as at the municipal level for children by making use of the powers delegated to the republics in the sphere of education, which remains relatively federative in contrast to most spheres since Putin’s new policies moved away from the asymmetrical unofficial federalism of the Boris Yeltsin era to a more unitary state model. Thus, in the new Law ‘On Education’ Article 8.3 stipulates one of the national republic powers in education to be “the guarantee of additional education for children in municipal general educational organizations by means of offering subventions to local budgets, for expenses including salaries, the purchase of textbooks and study materials,” and more (http://zakon-ob-obrazovanii.ru/8.html). Thus, there is nothing to prevent, for example, Bashkortostan, Chuvashiya or Kabardino-Balkariya from devoting additional funds to schools for the specific purpose of Bashkir or, given the large ethnic Tatar population in the republic, even of Tatar language courses.

This is the law for the state educational system financed from federal, regional, and municipal budgets. There is nothing in Russian law that prevents the founding of a Tatar, Ingush, Ossetiyan or ethnic school that offers courses in their respective language or that conducts the teaching of all courses in that language. The only limitations would be receiving accreditation from the federal government and, for parents and students in both state and private schools, their willingness to study partially or solely in their non-Russian native language in a situation in which the state final high school level examination – the United State Examination or YeGE) is given only in Russian. The YeGE determines whether one receives a diploma and one’s future prospects when applying to universities, so parents will want to be sure their children are most proficient in Russian and therefore may opt out. Over time this could constrain the diffusion of the native language in the particular ethnic minority community and even endanger the language’s survival. Ultimately, that outcome will be determined by the robustness of the particular national minority population’s sense of national identity.

Ukrainian Law on Minority Languages in Education

On September 25, 2017 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a new law ‘On Education’ basically stipulating that all secondary education must be in the Ukrainian language. In pre-school and primary education, any study in, or of minority languages, seems to relegated  to voluntary after school special courses. The new law is being implemented gradually from September 2018 until September 2020. According to Article 7.1, the law establishes the state language (Ukrainian) as the language of the educational process,” and the “state guarantees every citizen of Ukraine the right to receive formal education at all levels (pre-school, general secondary, vocational (vocational), professional and advanced and higher), as well as out-of-school and postgraduate education in the state language in state and communal educational institutions” (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). This and all other provisions in the law pertain to both state and non-state schools, since no distinction is made between the two and there is no mention of private educational institutions, just the overall educational system of process.

For “persons belonging to ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples of Ukraine, the law never declares that the ‘state guarantees’ or ‘contributes’ to study in those languages. Instead, it is declared that “the right” to study in their native language “is guaranteed” for ethnic minorities but only in “communal educational institutions for obtaining pre-school and primary education” but not secondary education. The term ‘communal educational institutions’ means schools, universities, educational centers, and so on, which are owned and financed by regional and municipal governments and not by the central state or privately. These are fewer and far less prestigious. This means that there is no legal mechanism for the study of subjects in minority languages in secondary education, and where it exists at the pre-school and primary school level it is confined to local educational institutions and the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way.

There is a distinction made in the law here between “ethnic minorities” and “indigenous peoples of Ukraine,” but the cause on the latter which flows that on the former is absolutely identical, only with the words ‘indigenous peoples of Ukraine’ replacing the words ‘ethnic minorities. It is not clear why this is divided in this way. For members of ethnic minorities, “(t)his right is exercised through the creation, in accordance with the law, of certain classes (groups) with learning in the language” of the respective national minority or indigenous people, “in addition to along with the official language” (Ukrainian), in the case of ethnic minorities, and “along with the official language” (Ukrainian), in the case of indigenous peoples (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). Thus, the law requires that study in indigenous peoples’ and ethnic minorities’ languages occur in conjunction with such study in the Ukrainian language, and, more importantly, not as part of the regular school curriculum in pre-school and primary school ‘communal’ (local) educational institutions but special groups or classes likely convened during after-school hours.

In terms of the right to study the languages themselves, whereas study of Ukrainian is mandatory in all schools at all levels, persons belonging to indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine “are guaranteed the right to study” the language of the respective people or minority in “communal institutions of general secondary education or through national cultural associations.” Again, the central state is not obliged to guarantee or contribute to such study as it is with regard to the official, Ukrainian language.“(T)he state contributes to” and “guarantees” the mandatory study of not only the state language (Ukrainian) but also “contributes to the study of languages of international communication, primarily English” (Article 7.3). The state even “contributes to the creation and functioning of educational institutions abroad, in which study is conducted in Ukrainian or Ukrainian is taught” (Article 7.6) (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). Moreover, by limiting this to study in ‘communal educational institutions’ there again — as with the study in minority languages in pre-school and primary school — exists no legal mechanism for ensuring the study of minority languages in primary schools, and where it exists at the secondary school level in local educational institutions, the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way. Also, like Russia, Ukraine has a unified examination for high school graduation.

Upon a quick reading, Articles 7.5 might seem to mitigate the indigenous and minority languages’ second class status to a degree. 7.5 states: “At the request of the applicants of vocational (vocational), vocational and higher education institutions of education create opportunities for studying the languages ​​of the indigenous people, the national minority of Ukraine as a separate discipline” (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). However, the pivotal words here are (a)t the request of applicants.’ Thus, it appears that students, who are members of indigenous or minority peoples ‘can request the creation of opportunities’ to their people’s language but only during the process of applying to attend a vocational of higher educational institution.’ This opens up the possibility that a student requesting opportunity to stud Russian or Tatar can be discriminated against in the application process by virtue of having made such a request.

Latvian Law on Minority Languages in Education

In March 2018, Latvia amended its Law on Education and its Article 9 ‘Educational Language,’ which covers language use in public (state) and private educational institutions. This is the fourth time Latvia has amended law’s language clauses since gaining independence form the USSR, with each round of amendment marking a successive narrowing of the use of non-Latvian languages (mostly Russian), in the country’s schools. The newly amended law came into effect in part a month later in April 2018 and will be implemented incrementally in parts through 2021 beginning from pre-school to seventh grade in September 2019. The law’s Section (i.e., Article) 1 stipulates that in pre-school, primary school and secondary school, all “(e)ducation in state, local government and state higher education institutions shall be acquired in the state language,” the ‘state language’, of course, being the Latvian language (https://m.likumi.lv/doc.php?id=50759). Education can be obtained in a foreign language, which Russian and all other languages are categorized as, under four exceptions, according to Section 2.

The first exception (Section 2.1) includes some private schools–those which function in Latvia on the basis of a bilateral or multilateral treaty between Latvia and another or several other countries. Since Latvia and Russia have not concluded such a treaty, and Latvia would be very unlikely to ever agree to conclude on, Latvia’s ethnic Russian community will be unable to restore Russian language use in education in any significant way. At least one of the three international schools in Latvia’s town of Pinki, a British international school with some 100 students from pre-school to currently seventh grade and presumably established on the basis of the required treaty between Latvia and Great Britain, does offer after-school Russian language lessons because of demand created by the large ethnic Russian cohort in attendance at the school. But this covers but a drop in the bucket of the large ethnic Russian community in Latvia, and the children of these ethnic Russians must balance after-school opportunity to study Russian with their children receiving pro-NATO propaganda at the school at the same time.

The second exception, under Section 2.2, stipulates study in a foreign (non-Latvian) language, including Russian, is possible in “state and local government educational institutions in which minority education programs are implemented, in compliance with the provisions of Section 41 of this Law.” Section 41.1 on “Minority Education Programs” holds such programs “are developed by an educational institution by choosing one of the national curricula for pre-school education or the model curriculum included in the relevant state education standard.” Section 41.2 also requires such programs to include content for “the integration of minorities in Latvia.” Latvian national ‘curricula for pre-school education’ and ‘model curriculum’ are available in annexes from Latvia’s Council of Ministers from 2012 and may be withdrawn or changed as a result of the new law. The pre-school curriculum is contained in an “Annex 2” of the Council of Ministers  and includes 9 subject areas, on ow which is “the language of the minority” and should cover “language development and orientation in the neighborhood, development of speech in the mother tongue, introduction of literature and folklore, and literacy” (https://likumi.lv/ta/id/250854#piel2). Another, nearly identical pre-school education curriculum can be found in an Annex 4 (https://likumi.lv/doc.php?id=250854#piel4). There is no designation of how many hours per day/week such study should include or any other details or directions, with all issues left up to the schools and their directors. Moreover, there is no indication in the Annexes that subjects will be taught in a non-Latvian language but only that a non-Latvian language will be one of the nine basic subjects or that this will be allowed beyond pre-school.

A third exception, contained in Section 2.2.1, allows “educational establishments,” presumably state and private, to implement subjects in education “in whole or in part in a foreign language in order to ensure the acquisition of other official languages ​​of the European Union.” This will benefit the microscopic Belorussian and Polish minority communities but not the Russian community. The fourth exclusion (Section 2.3) reads that education in another language can be acquired “in other educational institutions provided by law.” Thus, the law appears to outlaw education in, and study of a non-Latvian language beyond pre-school in both state primary and secondary schooling. There appears to be a legal opening in Section 2.3 to study in, and study of a non-Latvian language in private primary and secondary schooling, but they are not fleshed out in the law. As the anti-Putin, pro-democracy Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta notes, the amended Latvian law forces private schools to choose: “either switch to Latvian or lose your license” (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/04/76059-tolko-latyshskiy).

In higher education, programs of study in state institutions may be “implemented” only in the state language of Latvian, with the following exceptions (Section 3). Sections 3.1-3.5 allows study in the official languages of the European Union in universities, colleges, and vocational higher education institutes with several limitations. Term papers, theses, and dissertations cannot be completed in Russian but only in Latvian or under certain conditions in an official language of the European Union (Section 3.5). It needs to be added that Latvia has a national language examination that tests whether students and residents without roots in Latvia’s pre-Soviet past have a minimal level of knowledge of the Latvian language, which effects university admission and right to gain citizenship, respectively.

In sum, the Russian law appears to be more accommodating of ethnic minorities’ language rights than are the Latvian and Ukrainian laws in terms of providing opportunity both to study in one’s native language and study one’s native language at all the various levels of education in state or private schools. Russia provides opportunities in both at every level of the education process to limited degrees albeit. These opportunities are not available in higher education in either Latvia or Ukraine. Under the new Latvian law, study of subjects in a language other than Latvian, English and EU state languages beyond pre-school will no longer be allowed outside foreign language schools set up on the basis of treaties with foreign states. This bans the native language of Latvia’s largest minority — ethnic Russians — from being used in the study of school subjects. Russian can be studied as a foreign language in state schools, but the law remains unclear on this issue as regards private schools not created under a treaty with a foreign country. In Ukraine, there is no legal mechanism for the study of subjects in minority languages in secondary and higher education. Where it exists at the pre-school and primary school level it is confined to local educational institutions and the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way. In terms of studying one’s minority native language, the right is limited to study in communal institutions of general secondary education or through national cultural associations; there is no such right for pre-school and primary school students.

Comparative Perspective

As a preliminary comment on language legislation in comparative perspective and level of democracy, it should be noted that Western governments do not guarantee ethnic minorities the right to study in, and study of their native languages. In the United States, for example, an American of Mexican heritage does not have the right to study in or the study of Spanish in public pre-school and primary schools in most states and this right is not federally mandated. In secondary education, study of, but not in Spanish is available in most public high schools as an elective foreign language course of study, but again this study is not guaranteed in law, no less at the federal level. That said, let us the review the domestic implications of these Russian, Ukrainian, and Latvian laws in terms of political process and the different multiethnic contexts of the three countries in question.

Russian Soft Authoritarianism’s Democratic Language Sphere

The Russian process, despite the rollback in ethnic minority language use in education, was sufficiently democratic. It yielded a legislative outcome moderately satisfactory to ethnic minorities, who mobilized against the law and introduced proposed changes to the legislative draft (for example – http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/322653/ and http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3494191). The federal center responded to ethnic minorities’ concerns regarding the first drafts of the amendments to the law. During Duma’s drafting and discussion over three readings of the law, the new Russian law was amended several times in response to concerns expressed by officials, experts, and citizens — including by way of court challenges and public demonstrations — of the national minorities, especially those of the Tatars (www.kommersant.ru/doc/3695531; https://kazanfirst.ru/posts/469817; http://www.rferl.org/a/tatarstan-steps-up-defense-tatar-language-in-schools/28724072.html; http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-tatarstan-language-conflict-court-ruling/28840403.html; and http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-tatarstan-prosecutors-reject-language-discrimination-complaint/29117450.html).

Moreover, the federal center has moved to support financially the study of minority and non-Russian state languages by creating in conjunction with the amended law a fund for this purpose. It will reportedly support provide financing for the publication and printing of textbooks and minority national literatures, and the training of teachers of minority and republican state languages (https://mir24.tv/news/16315373/gosduma-prinyala-zakon-o-rodnyh-yazykah). Furthermore,  the national republics are moving to take advantage of the authority granted to them in Russian law to guarantee continued minority and republican state language study. For example, head of the Bashkortostan Republic, Rustem Khamitov, issued an order establishing a republican grant program to support the study of the Bashkir language and other minority languages in the republic (www.bashinform.ru/news/1047064-yazykovaya-tema-roddom-ne-opravdal-doveriya-terror-po-telefonu-nedelya-glazami-smi-/?sphrase_id=6536253). Similarly, the Institute of Philology and Intercultural Communications at Tatarstan’s Kazan Federal University established free Tatar language courses i response to the amendments to the federal law (https://kazanfirst.ru/posts/472972). It also appears that the national republics are able to register high rates of volunteer ‘opt-in’ minority language study. Thus, 75 percent of students in Bashkiriya chose to study the Bashkir language (www.bashinform.ru/news/1046669-voprosy-izucheniya-gosudarstvennykh-i-rodnykh-yazykov-nelzya-puskat-na-samotyek-rustem-khamitov/?sphrase_id=6536253).

There is a political advantage to the ‘opt-in’ system in that those ethnic Russians or others who do not wish their children to study the republican state language and have been dissatisfied with being obliged to do so and perhaps dissatisfied with the republic’s ethnic leadership and titular nationality as a result will no longer be so dissatisfied and alienated. However, there will arise a problem for ethnic minorities who move out of their national republics, since in cities and towns besides perhaps Moscow, the number of minorities will not suffice to make it possible or reasonable for a school to offer study in or study of the numerous minority languages that will be represented by members of national minorities in their schools. This will create a developmental differential problem, given the greater economic opportunities in the large metropolises in Russia proper compared to the more provincial cities in the national republics, with the possible exception of Tatarstan’s capitol Kazan. This differential could be a continuing source of irritation between Moscow and the national republics and ethnic Russians and the national minorities. But this is a major hurdle that any multinational state structured as Russia is by historical development, geography, and demographic factors is bound to face, though Russia’s relative economic and federative centralization may exacerbate the issue.

The prior status quo was hardly prohibitive in terms of minority language rights, in which the study of republic state languages, including non-Russian ones such as Tatar, Bashkir, Chechen, and Chuvash, could be made compulsory in the national republics. But only 9 of Russia’s 22 national republics had compulsory republican state language in education prior to the new amendments marking the new law. It is unlikely that the new law will change that picture substantially. At present, there are 36 state languages in Russia (www.gazeta.ru/social/2018/07/25/11869531.shtml). The new Russian law will be problematic for the more than 100 other national minority languages in Russia, including the five languages of the titular nationalities of the four remaining national autonomous okrugs (districts) at the regional level (www.gazeta.ru/social/2018/07/25/11869531.shtml). These smaller minorities in Russia will be in a somewhat similar position to that of Russians, Hungarians and Romanians in Ukraine and Russians in Latvia– second class citizens when it comes to language rights and, if they do not accept greater assimilation, to many economic and lifetime opportunities.

Maidan Ukraine’s Oligarchic, Ultranationalist, Semi-Democratic Regime

The Ukrainian law never asserts that the state contributes or guarantees the study in, and of indigenous peoples’ and ethnic minorities’ languages, just the right to such study exists. Persons who are members of such groups are stipulated only to “have the right” to study in and study their languages, without the state ‘guarantee’ and ‘contribution’ stipulated for study in the official, state language of Ukrainian. Moreover, ethnic minorities do not have that right to do so in state educational institutes, but rather in “special classes and groups” and in “communal educational institutions for obtaining pre-school and primary education.” Furthermore, the study in, and of indigenous/minority languages is broken up by confining the study of subjects in such languages in pre-school and primary school, while the study of the languages themselves can only be done in secondary school and higher education.

At the same time Article 7.3 stipulates that the Ukrainian state contributes to “the study of languages ​​of international communication, primarily English,” not just in state but also “municipal educational institutions” as well as to the study of EU official languages (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). The languages of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities are therefore relegated to second class status not only with respect to the official language (Ukrainian), as in the Russian law’s privileging Russian, but to foreign languages such as English and languages of the EU. However, since two of Ukraine’s other minorities with significantly numerous and territorially concentrations are languages of EU countries (Hungarian and Ukrainian), it is only in fact the Russian language that is relegated to second class status. Article 7.4 also seems to privilege the official state language of Ukrainian as well as English and EU (read: Hungarian and Romanian?) languages over Russian: “In educational establishments, one or more disciplines in two or more languages ​​(in the official language, in English, in other official languages ​​of the European Union) can be taught in accordance with the educational program” (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html). Thus, minority language study is given lower status that the study of English, EU state languages, two of which happen to be the languages of two ethnic minorities in Ukraine with smaller populations than the Russian population in Ukraine. This relegates Russian to third class status within Ukraine.

The Russian language in Ukraine may even be relegated to a fourth class status depending on how the state interprets and carries out the law’s mandates regarding the right to study the languages of ‘indigenous peoples’ and ‘ethnic minorities.’ It cannot be excluded that a distinction be the two in terms of status will be entered into law or will be perceived in and/or read into the law by the bureaucracy that will render the Russian language to be categorized as non-indigenous with reference to ‘colonization’ or ‘occupation.’ Other laws, such as the forthcoming Law on General Secondary Education, could stipulate that non-indigenous languages are not minority languages and therefore are not protected. In this case, Russian might be relegated to the status of a language of ‘international communication’ such as English or an official EU language such as French, but this is unlikely given the Poroshenko regime’s repeated efforts to limit the presence of the Russian language in Ukraine. That more laws affecting language rights in Ukraine likely are forthcoming is evidenced in Article 7.7: “The peculiarities of the use of languages ​​in certain types and at individual levels of education are determined by special laws” (http://search.ligazakon.ua/l_doc2.nsf/link1/T172145.html).

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission found the law and its Article 7 to be unclear regarding the rights of ethnic minorities and that provisions in the law that allow for the education of some school subjects in EU languages were difficult to justify, as they would discriminate against the Russian language (www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-language/criticism-of-ukraines-language-law-justified-rights-body-idUSKBN1E227K). Specifically the commission ruled that the Ukrainian law’s Article 7 “is deficient in clearly defending minority language rights, stating that the law “contains important ambiguities and does not appear to provide the needed guidance on the application of the country’s international and constitutional obligations. The exact scope of the guarantees for education in the minority languages, mainly limited to primary education, is not clear.” It emphasized that the the new Ukrainian law “provides no solutions for languages which are not official languages of the EU, in particular the Russian language, as the most widely used non-state language. The less favorable treatment of these languages is difficult to justify and therefore raises issues of discrimination.” The Venice Commission, therefore, recommended that various provisions in Article 7 be replaced and minorities be consulted in the drafting of a new article and that private schools be exempted from the law, among other specific changes (https://rm.coe.int/090000168076f2c3 and http://bit.ly/2j92XBW).

The Ukrainian legislative process seems to have been flawed. The Venice Commission ruling seemed ti imply that the Ukrainian government deceived minority communities, noting that the law’s Article 7 “is quite different from the draft on which minorities were consulted.” Proposed amendments to the law from individuals and societal groups were ignored. This was fatal to the pluralism of the process, since Ukraine lacks an even quasi-federative system. Thus, Ukraine’s regions under the new law, unlike Russia’s under its amended law, have no jurisdictional authority constitutionally to ‘guarantee of additional education for children in municipal general educational organizations by means of offering subventions to local budgets, for expenses including salaries, the purchase of textbooks and study materials.’

On the other hand, as the Venice Commission noted, given the law’s vagueness on implementation there is the possibility that subsequent legislation, such as the forthcoming Law of General Secondary Education, “could provide for more detailed and balanced solutions and address many of the immediate concerns” and thus fall “more in line with the protection of national minorities (https://rm.coe.int/090000168076f2c3 and http://bit.ly/2j92XBW). This seems possible but less likely, given the nationals/ultra-nationist makeup of the Rada and Ukrainian executive branch. For example, it is hard to imagine the present administration and Rada creating a fund for the support of minority languages (unless the Russian language is excluded from such a fund in law) in the way the Russian authorities have established a fund for minority language stud support. It is likely that future laws covering the issue of language in education will be less accommodating to minority tongues, surely with regard to Russian. The federal government has put limits on Russian language use in culture, and in ultranationalist Lviv, the regional council has just passed a general ban on any use whatsoever of Russian in public cultural products such as film, books, and songs (www.unian.net/society/10266477-na-lvovshchine-zapretili-filmy-knigi-i-pesni-na-russkom-yazyke.html) and has appealed to other regional councils and the Rada to pass similar laws. Therefore, despite the possibility for a change of course through future legislations, the Venice Commission was probably correct in recommending “(t)he appropriate solution would be to amend Article 7” (https://rm.coe.int/090000168076f2c3 and http://bit.ly/2j92XBW).

Latvia: From Civic to Ethnic State?

Latvia has banned non-Latvian language use in education in state and, in effect, in public schools. This is a step backward from the previous practice where schools could teach at least 40 percent of the curriculum in a non-Latvian language, which was usually Russian. It is important to bear in mind that people tend to mobilize more robustly in cases where they are trying to stop or protesting the loss of previous rights. This raises the specter of growing political pressure that could re-shape the country’s language laws — especially in the case if Latvia, with its bare majority ethnic Latvian population — or it could lead to political instability even violence. The Latvian government’s new language policy has led to a considerable political mobilization of the ethnic Russian minority community. There have been several large demonstrations this year. The largest was the September 16th march organized by the Russian Union of Latvia party and other groups, which drew some 5,000 marchers to the center of Riga (www.ng.ru/politics/2018-09-16/3_7311_pribalt.html). No comparable demonstrations occurred in response to the Ukrainian or Russian laws, which in Russia with some 25 times the total minority population size would amount to 125,000 marchers. No demonstration in Russia reached more than a few hundred protesters (that occurred in Tatarstan alone).

The Oligarchic-Ultranationalist Maidan Regime

In Ukraine, there were no demonstrations of any significant size. However, there appear to have been several possible terrorist attacks related to the tensions created by the new Ukrainian law in the Hungarian-populated Transcarpathian region in western Ukraine. On 27 February 2018 an explosion and arson fire hit two different organizations representing Ukraine’s Hungarian community centered in western Ukraine around Uzhgorod in Transcarpathia. The building of the Union of Hungarians of Transcarpathia was bombed and set on fire (https://rian.com.ua/video/20180227/1032741012/poyavilos-video-Uzhhorod-vzryv-soyuz.html and https://rian.com.ua/photolents/20180227/1032735416/zakarpattya-vzryv-pozhar-poyavilis-foto.html). Hours earlier the Hungarian Cultural Society in Uzhgorod, Ukraine was set on fire for the second time in recent weeks (https://rian.com.ua/incidents/20180227/1032725373/uzhgorod-podozhgli-ofis-hungary.html). These attacks were likely carried out by Ukrainian ultranationalists in retaliation for Hungarian opposition to the new Ukrainian law on language in education. Hungary was swift in condemning these attacks on Ukraine’s Hungarian community, which came on the background of mounting violence against Romis and Jewish institutions in Ukraine.

The restrictions on minority languages in education in Ukraine and Latvia, now more severe than those in the amended Russian law, are more likely to provoke a minority backlash.  Ukraine’s and Latvia’s unitary state systems deprived those dissatisfied with the first drafts of the legislation from benefitting from having a bureaucratic apparatus and, in most cases, cohort of local state officials, who were in position to lobby the federal legislature for changes to the draft law. Russia has a series of such mechanisms. At the same time, Russian civil society did not lag behind Ukrainian or the Latvian in lobbying for changes to the draft legislation. As noted earlier, in the cases of the minorities in Ukraine and Latvia we are talking about larger minorities; in the case of the Russian minorities – large minorities. So the former should have been able to wrest concessions more easily than the latter, especially if the Latvia and Ukraine are deemed to be significantly more democratic than Russia. Yet in Russia — with its ethnic minority population significantly smaller and far more ethnically divided than the ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine and Latvia — the federal state managed moved to meet the ethnic minority public and republican official disgruntlement with changes to the law. Meanwhile, the much more numerous and therefore presumably powerful ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine and Latvia were unable to wrest any significant softening of their respective draft laws or pressure for the adoption of mitigating policies similar to Russia’s fund for the support of minority and republic language education. The above-mentioned statelessness status of 200,000 mostly ethnic Russian Latvian residents is a large part of the Latvian state’s ability to ignore minority language rights. Overall, it turns out that however weak Russian federalism has been rendered under Putin, federative institutions still provide a modicum of flexibility that is able to at least minimally ‘satisfice’ ethnic minorities’ and republican governments’ preferences. This disbalance between Russian minorities’ rights in Ukraine and Latvia, on the one hand, and the rights of ethnic minorities in Russia, has important geopolitical consequences. It is important to note that gradual implementation holds open the possibility of improvement in these laws, and the next few years will be a time of continuing political struggle over the future of the present law and the details of its implementation into life.

Geopolitical Implications

The language issue is becoming a wedge issue dividing the populations in the countries that make up the borderland between Russia and the West. The West’s struggle to expand especially NATO (but also the EU) is exacerbating interethnic relations between ethnic Russian minorities and other nationalities in these countries. Ukraine’s and Latvia’s new laws on education and their clauses on language use are the result of not just domestic politics but also the sense of the Ukrainian and Latvian ethno-national majorities that the West has their backs. There is no evidence that these policies are being encouraged from Washington or Brussels intentionally, but they are being tolerated intentionally, despite negative reviews from bodies like the EU Venice Comission. Will the EU deny Ukraine EU membership or censure Latvia for laws that discriminate against Russophones? This is unlikely. Despite all the noise made about Juliya Tymoshenko’s imprisonment under Viktor Yanukovych and claims by the EU in 2012-2013 that it would not sign an association agreement with Kyiv unless she were freed, the EU was ready to sign such an agreement at the November Vilnius summit nevertheless. It was Ukraine balked at signing, not Brussels.

At the same time, minority language issues affect other national minorities in countries such as Ukraine, Latvia, and Moldova, and these minorities are receiving support from the Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and other governments interested in protecting co-ethnics over the border in Ukraine much as Russia is interested in doing so in Latvia and Ukraine. The negative reaction to Ukraine’s new law was even more broad. Besides Russia’s expected criticism of the Ukrainian law, that by government bodies, state officials, journalists and analysts in Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece (all NATO as well as EU members), and Moldova was surprising and suggests the scale of disenchantment with the knee-jerk support of Kyiv in Washington and Brussels. In October, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijarto said the issue of ethnic Hungarians’ language rights in Ukraine had driven relations to their lowest since Ukraine won independence from the USSR in 1991 and threatened that Budapest would block Kyiv’s EU membership bid if the law went forward.(http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/73272). As a result, the issue strengthened the robust trend in Hungary for support of Russia in its embattled position vis-a-vis the West. This trend might have been furthered by the West’s putting aside their democratization principles in being willing to hold Hungary’s attempts to protect the minority language rights of its compatriots in Ukraine hostage to the Ukrainian-language chauvinism. The US State Department recently appealed to Budapest to not allow the new Ukrainian law get in the way of Ukrainian-NATO cooperation, after Budapest signaled it would block any Ukrainian bid for NATO membership if the new Law on Education is not amended to strengthen minority language rights (www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2018/10/4/7194143/).

Romanian government officials were outspoken in defending the some 150,000 Romanians and 250,000 Moldovans in Ukraine, who were seen as victims of Ukrainian nationalist discrimination. The Romanian parliament’s declaration condemning the Ukrainian law included an implicit version of Budapest’s threat to block Kyiv’s bid for EU membership should the law be implemented as is. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis cancelled a trip to Ukraine in a failed effort to pressure Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko not to sign the law (http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/73272).

Thus, Ukrainian ultra-nationalism is driving a wedge within the EU and NATO as well as between Russia and the West. Moscow sees the law as further evidence that the ‘Ukrainian junta’ is predominantly neofascist, rather than a mix of various elements, mostly oligarchic and ultranationalist. Both Russia’s State Duma and Federation Council passed a resolution on in September 2017, condemning Ukraine’s new law as infringing upon the rights of Ukraine’s Russophones.

In Latvia, the adoption of the law, though in part an election gimmick that nationalist and patriotic parties are using to mobilize the ethnic Latvian majority vote, is also part of a larger civilizational war between Western and Russian soft power. Visiting Latvia recently, one could not help but be struck by the building an Orthodox Church in the center of the beach resort town of Jurmala, populated by many ethnic Russian Latvian and Russian citizens and the testimony of an acquaintance who relayed the use of international schools in Latvia as soft power conduits. Thus, one school opened this fall with ‘outdoor education.’ This program was kicked off by a visiting British major serving in NATO forces in Estonia, who led the outdoor educational activity at the international school in Latvia during which students, including first to seventh graders, were presented with: (1) a wrist band depicting the NATO, British, and Baltic states’ flags; (2) a bookmark on which was written ‘NATO: We are allies;’ and . This occurred within days of the 5,000-strong Russian march protesting the new Latvian law. Interestingly, the plurality of students are ethnic Russians, some of whom may even be Russian citizens. Was there any concern that the NATO propaganda might not be well-received by many of the students’ parents?

Concluding Concerns

In sum, the language wars in the ‘post-Soviet space’ are part of a larger civilizational clash that is being heated up by the new cold war. It is a well known fact of political life that interethnic conflicts can be exacerbated greatly by outside meddling. This occurred as a the result of actions by both sides in making of the new cold war both in Georgia and Ukraine, leading to hot wars. There is much Western talk of a supposed ‘Russian threat’ to the Baltic states. One of the claims made is that ‘Russia will use’ the local ethnic Russian minority — specifically, the need to defend it — in Latvia as a pretext to continue its ‘imperialist expansion.’ But is not the West using or at least allowing the Latvian and Ukrainian majority populations to rollback Russians’ rights and therefore influence in the Baltic and other former Soviet republics in order to rollback Russian influence and power overall? Does the violation of minority rights serve the image of the democratic West well? Does the rollback of Russian rights in the non-Russian post-Soviet states enhance support for democratization and Westernization in Russia itself or does it provoke anti-Western attitudes, nationalism, and denigration of Russia’s democrats? Simply put, does ratcheting up Russian-related tensions in these countries make war or peace more likely?


On October 4th a new draconian “Law on Languages,” submitted by President Poroshenko, was passed by the Rada. It stipulates the full Ukrainization of language use  In Ukraine outside of interpersonal communication and religious services. The new law outstrips the Law on Education adopted earlier this year in terms of language discrimination. The Law on Languages stipulates that minority language use is limited to special groups, which would be held after school. The state high school graduation exam will be given only in Ukrainian. In culture, all signs and announcements must be in Ukrainian, and all orations, films, and theatre performances must be in Ukrainian or be presented with Ukrainian subtitles. All documentation for courts and medical institutions must be in Ukrainian or a translation/translator to Ukrainian must be provided. Stores, barber shops, hair salons, restaurants, and Internet stores are obliged to provide services in Ukrainian or provide translation. All print media must be published with a Ukrainian language version, and version in other languages must be identical in content to the Ukrainian language version. Subjects must be rendered only in Ukrainian (for example, regional council must be written as ‘oblrada‘ and not ‘oblsovet,’ and all geographical names must be transliterated to Ukrainian letters (for example, ‘Oдэса’ not ‘Oдeссa’ and ‘Львив’, not ‘Львов’). A National Language Standards Commission will monitor and enforce these rules and issue certificates testifying to one’s mastery of the Ukrainian language (https://vesti-ukr.com/politika/306403-lviv-odesa-i-shtrafy-chto-tait-zakon-o-jazyke and http://w1.c1.rada.gov.ua/pls/zweb2/webproc4_1?pf3511=60952) .


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


  1. Great article! I will allow myself to note that the Ukrainization of Ukraine is a reaction of Ukrainian society to the doctrine of the “Russian world”, which, through the “Russian language”, serves as the basis for external aggression of the Russian Federation.

  2. Good analysis, but it is important to remember two things: first, there is no direct correlation between ethnisity and language used, lots of ethnic Ukrainians have Russian as native language. Second, initially language conflicts were seeded by KGB to retain leverage after USSR will fall apart.

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