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Sep 22, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

What did minority children in Ukraine do to deserve this?

Many wonder the same these days – what did minority children in Ukraine do to deserve having their rights to study in their native tongue taken away?

“In 2017 one thousand Hungarian children from Transcarpathia had the opportunity to attend summer camp in Zánka, and we also hosted five hundred Ukrainian children and accompanying adults,” said Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in his address to the opening of the fall session of Parliament earlier this week. “It is natural for us that we should also extend a helping hand to Ukrainian families, as far as we are able to. This is why we are so distressed by the decision of Ukrainian politicians to deprive Hungarian children of education in their mother tongue in the later years of elementary school.

“The questions we ask,” the prime minister continued, “What did these Hungarian children do to deserve this? What did their parents do to deserve this?”

Many wonder the same these days – what did minority children in Ukraine do to deserve having their rights to study in their native tongue taken away?

Ukraine’s neighbors find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. The Ukrainian legislative body recently accepted a new regulation that strips the right of ethnic minorities to study in their mother tongue, including languages such as Hungarian, Polish and Romanian, among others. Over the last several years, these countries have stood by Ukraine in the hardest of times. More than a diplomatic stab in the back, this new legislation runs roughshod over Ukraine’s human rights commitments and should be withdrawn.

Specifically, the proposed law would directly limit instruction in ethnic minority languages in the public education system. With it, the country flirts with a different path all too familiar from the 20th century: the systematic oppression and coercive assimilation of minorities. This would be a significant step back for ethnic minorities in Ukraine, a population that makes up 20 percent of the country.

Thirty-seven members of the European Parliament, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia, last week sent an open letter to President Poroshenko. The MEPs called on him not to sign the Ukrainian legislation into law, emphasizing that the new law would abolish 120 Romanian, 100 Hungarian and five Polish schools and violate specific international agreements ratified by Ukraine. Those include the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and moreover, certain parts of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. That’s a problem.

The foreign ministers of Hungary, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria also sent a letter to their Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin, Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland, and OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier to express their serious concerns regarding this legislation.

Along with our European allies, we have legitimate reason to raise our concerns. We are not just neighbors with significant ethnic minorities in Ukraine. We were also among the loudest supporters of Ukraine’s progress and close relationship to the European Union, including most recently the granting to Ukrainian citizens visa-free travel to the EU. Today, we feel betrayed.

Why is this an issue? We’re surprised it is because it shouldn’t be. In a perfect world, these minorities would be citizens of the country they reside in and able to express their cultural identity by using their mother tongue. This is the European way.

An outsider might say that Ukraine’s educational law aims at strengthening national identity in an already unstable Ukraine, but that’s not the case. Europe’s experience in previous centuries has shown that forced nationalization is never the right answer. Alienating your friends, allies and neighbors with backwards laws that hurt vulnerable minorities in Ukraine is not the way to stabilize a country.

The only right thing to do for Ukraine is to withdraw the education law and pull the plug on the idea of limiting the rights of ethnic minorities once and for all.