A recent change in Ukraine’s education laws has aggravated ethnic tensions within the country and now threatens to impede relations between Ukraine and the European Union. On September 26, President Petro Poroshenko signed a new education bill into law, standardizing Ukrainian as the language of the education system. This is a departure from the old system, under which students were guaranteed education in their ethnic language.
In a country with significant minorities of Hungarians, Romanians, Moldovans, and Russians, the introduction of the law incited controversy over the constriction of cultural expression within the education system. While Ukrainian officials argue that the new law will strengthen the education system while continuing its tradition of open and accessible education, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó contended that “the fate of Hungarians living outside of Hungary is not negotiable,” calling for its immediate repeal.
This law—and the ensuing backlash—comes at a time of tense relations between Ukraine and Russia. In the wake of hostility between the two countries, Ukraine’s subsequent rapprochement with the European Union adds a complex dynamic to the introduction of this law. As recently as June, Poroshenko hailed the introduction of visa-free travel to the European Union as “the fall of the paper curtain.” Following Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Slavic state has turned to the West as an ally, specifically to the EU. However, the ratification of this law and the potential it has for marginalizing ethnic minorities could possibly jeopardize reconciliation by alienating Ukraine’s southern neighbors.
A summit in July regarding the future of Ukraine’s relationship with the EU highlighted significant divides within EU member states concerning the EU’s willingness to guarantee Ukraine’s membership. Compounding on this hesitation, Hungarian officials—seeking to protect the rights of their ethnic minority population of 150,000 in Ukraine—are now pursuing a revision of the Association Agreement signed in July and a reevaluation of Ukraine’s involvement in the EU. Furthermore, this law has estranged Ukraine’s neighbor Romania, whose president has since cancelled a visit to Ukraine in solidarity with the 400,000 ethnic-Romanians within Ukraine’s borders who will be affected.