FACT CHECK: Financial Times “Ukraine open to minority rights concessions in quest to join EU”

The September 12, Financial Times article  Ukraine open to minority rights concessions in quest to join EU addresses one of Ukraine’s major hurdles to EU membership. Read the full text below with HHRF commentary, fact checks and context.

SEPTEMBER 12, 2023

Ben Hall

Kyiv prepared to change rules on languages used in schools to unlock accession talks

Ukraine is prepared to make changes to its laws on minority rights to unlock EU agreement later this year on opening accession talks, its deputy prime minister has said.

Good, because since 2015, every law adopted by Ukraine affecting education, language and other rights for ethnic minorities has eliminated existing rights.

Olga Stefanishyna, who is in charge of Ukraine’s drive to join the EU, told the Financial Times Kyiv was prepared to make “additional amendments” to rules on secondary education in minority languages, including Hungarian, as long as a balance was struck with teaching in Ukrainian.

Good, because in 2017 and 2019, respectively, the Venice Commission already gave recommendations for changing the laws on education and the state language that Ukraine has ignored.

The issue has become the biggest potential obstacle to the start of formal EU membership negotiations with Kyiv. The bloc’s leaders are due to decide in December whether to begin talks, but Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly threatened to veto the process over the minority rights issue, accusing Kyiv of “Hungarophobia”.
Ukraine has dozens of minorities — Zakarpattia province in western Ukraine is home to an estimated 80,000 ethnic Hungarians — and protecting their rights is one of seven reform benchmarks demanded by the EU before it opens membership talks.

Correct except that the last official census counted 156,000 ethnic Hungarians. Even given an unofficial estimate of a probable 20 percent decrease in population, there is no way the community’s number is half.EU reform benchmarks is why Ukraine adopted a new law on national minorities (communities) in December 2022 that unfortunately fails to achieve the purpose, but further strips minorities of their rights while ignoring their recommendations.

Ukrainian officials will this week begin bilateral talks with Hungary and Romania to try to iron out an agreement on the balance of Ukrainian and minority language education in secondary schools.

The Hungarian community has consistently asked for effective tools to teach Ukrainian. During Zelenskyy’s  August 2 visit to Zakarpattia oblast, the head of the Teachers Association, Ildikó Orosz, handed over a written statement asking Ukraine to finally resolve this issue like other European countries have. The Venice Commission also points out this deficiency.

“We will amend the legislation on national minorities, and we can put additional amendments [into law] if needed, but we need to have the [bilateral] negotiations first,” Stefanishyna said.

Bilateral discussions are important but so is Ukraine fulfilling its minority rights obligations assumed in international instruments, for example, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages or the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

However, the deputy prime minister said ethnic minority Ukrainians needed to be taught enough Ukrainian so they could pursue further education or job opportunities outside minority areas. She said the current rules that had introduced more mandatory Ukrainian language teaching were working well: “A balance has been found and it is working. So we really need to assess that.”

No, the “current rules“ are not working well. The real issue is not more Ukrainian language teaching, but less teaching in the [minority] language. The Ukrainian constitution guarantees choice of education language.In fact, the Ukrainian government recently postponed until September 1, 2024, implementation of education law provisions that would gradually decrease the number of subjects taught in a minority’s language.

Officials in Kyiv and Brussels fear Orban, an ally of Moscow, has no interest in finding a solution to the education issue and will use it as an excuse to block the start of accession talks in December.

Hungary has every “interest in finding a solution to the education issue.” It is in fact Hungary that initiated the bilateral meeting on September 15 where no progress was made. Meanwhile, this forum has been available to Ukraine since 1991 when the two countries signed a basic treaty explicitly guaranteeing the right of the Hungarian minority to education, in Hungarian, from elementary school to the university level.

The Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional law attached to the Council of Europe, has also said Ukraine should protect the language rights of Russian speakers. Stefanishyna has previously expressed confidence the EU would not hold up the start of talks over that issue.

In its June Opinion, the Commission does state that Ukraine should further postpone and revise its planned changes to the minority-language school system, aligning with the Commission’s 2017 recommendation.

The European Commission said Ukraine had fully met two of the seven benchmarks for starting talks: on media freedom and judicial reform. It will assess progress on the other five — minority rights, anti-corruption reforms, anti money laundering rules, anti-oligarch laws and constitutional court reform — later this autumn.

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