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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Venice Commission lambastes “language bill”

Maryna STAVNIICHUK: We must ensure that Ukrainian plays the integrative role of a single official language
22 December, 2011 - 00:00

The Ukrainian parliament re­gis­tered the bill “On Principles of the State Language Policy” at the end of last August. The law was drawn up by the Party of Regions MPs Serhii Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko. It will be recalled that, under the draft law, Russian would be a regional language in 13 out of Ukraine’s 27 oblasts.

The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) has announced after examining the bill that it does not have enough guarantees for the usage and protection of the Ukrainian language. Although the draft law no longer focuses on the Russian language, it ensures that the latter has the same status as does Ukrainian.

Meanwhile, Serhii Kivalov’s press service has already announced that this bill was approved by the Venice Commission. The Day requested Maryna STAVNIICHUK, member of the European Commission for Democracy through Law, to comment on the commission’s conclusions about the draft law and on the Ukraine-EU summit.

“The conclusions and recommendations of the Venice Commission (VC) about the draft law on principles of the state language policy, prepared by Kivalov and Kolesnichenko, are not unequivocal indeed. Naturally, the VC marked certain progress in comparison with the draft law it had examined and reported on in March. At the same time, the commission said clearly that the foundations of the state language policy should recognize an unconditional priority of the integrative role of Ukrainian as a single official language in compliance with the current Constitution of Ukraine. The Venice Commission says the languages of ethnic minorities must receive certain guarantees for being used in all the spheres of society. On the other hand, it notes that there should be not only mechanisms for putting this into practice but also guarantees for bringing into play legal mechanisms for these languages. In my opinion, the Venice Commission arrived at a well-ba­lanced conclusion because it notes progress and development in Ukraine’s language policy. But, on the other hand, the VC clearly outlined some warnings about the language question, an extremely delicate issue for any state. Moreover, the VC always reiterates the general principle used by all countries without an exception: granting the right to use regional and minority languages should not hinder the official language.

“It is quite a serious problem for Ukraine because the VC touched upon this in its previous conclusion. This item was on the commission’s agenda. In particular, Sergio Bartole, permanent expert on Ukraine’s language problems, said that using the native language at the legislative level is a sensitive issue. For the Soviet-era history of Ukraine provides ample grounds to say that the Ukrainians have not always been aware of what the native language is. As for the Kivalov and Ko­les­ni­chenko draft law, the commission warns Ukraine that this requires enormous financial and budgetary expenses.”

And what recommendations did the Venice Commission give about this draft law?

“The Venice Commission re­com­mends the authors to take a more expert-like and balanced approach to pursuing the language policy. Speaking at the commission session, President of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, defined the language question as ‘a very delicate matter of state building’ which requires a special approach. I would personally remind the authors that the language question requires not only expertness but also impartiality. One should not try to find fault in it all the time and divide experts into ‘ours’ and ‘aliens.’ As an independent state that has the right to exists and have a serious future, Ukraine should take a ba­lan­ced approach to this matter. Under the Constitution, we must preserve the integrative role of Ukrainian as a single official language. On the other hand, I would like to note that the current constitutional regulation of language issues is quite good. Article 10 identifies Ukrainian as a single state language that will be used in both the governmental and the public spheres. On the other hand, under our Constitution, the Rus­sian language enjoys special status in comparison to other national minority languages. If you analyze Part 3, Article 10, of the Constitution, you will see that the state guarantees a comprehensive development of ‘the Russian and other national minority languages.’ No other constitution in the post-Soviet space has a similar provision that shows, in legal terms, respect for a non-official language. In reality, there is no language conflict in Ukraine. I had to emphasize this at the Venice Commission session after Mr. Kivalov, who was presenting the draft law, said there was an acute language conflict in Ukraine. I also pointed out that language problems had not been duly settled. But the task for both the Ukrainian lawmaker and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), which gives Ukraine its opinions and recommendation in the language sphere, is to improve, not worsen, the legal settlement of language problems and enable the Ukrainian language to play a unifying role in society and the state, positively motivating the Ukrainians and other people who reside on the territory of Ukraine to learn Ukrainian. At the same time, everybody should be free to use the language which they consider native and which is the language of one minority or another.”

And what do you think of the recent Ukraine-EU summit?

“I think it is a serious step that brings Ukraine closer to and promoted integration with the European community. It is also a serious step in terms of juridical forma­lization of Ukraine’s association with the European Union. It is also an important step in the political dialogue between Ukraine and Europe. It seems to me there is every reason to expect the Ukrai­ne-EU agreement to be initialed shortly – at least, all experts, both Ukrainian and foreign, are pointing this out. Anyway, this summit should be regarded as a serious leap forward in the Ukrainian-Euro­­pean dialogue.”

By Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day
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