Biden Should Question Zelensky on Minority Rights in Ukraine

Minorities in Ukraine: Four Questions to Ask President Zelensky

The upcoming White House meeting between Presidents Biden and Zelenskywill focus on expanded strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Ukraine. Yet little attention is paid to the fact that the rights of Ukraine’s minorities have been continually eroded since 2014.

To counteract Russian influence in eastern Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the government of Ukraine radically changed its minority policy. As a result, the ethnic Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian and Crimean Tatar minorities, among others, have become collateral damage.

To ensure stability, any viable foreign policy strategy and bilateral relationship must stress universal values, including fundamental human and minority rights.

We urge President Biden, State Department officials, Members of Congress and the media to vigorously address the neglected issue of minority rights and pose these vital four questions:

1. Why do Ukrainian authorities continue to tolerate, rather than condemn hate speech and hate crimes against ethnic minority groups?
      • In 2018, ultra-nationalist groups set fire to the office of the Cultural Alliance of Hungarians in Sub-Carpathia.
      • Overnight, billboards also appeared, with photos of community leaders branded as “separatists” in the region, which is home to the 150,000-strong Hungarian minority.
      • The still-functioning extremist Myrotvorets website, which has evident ties to government officials, listed the addresses of ethnic Hungarian community leaders and branded them as “enemies of Ukraine.”
      • In November 2020, in a politically motivated intimidation campaign, armed security commandos raided a home and several Hungarian minority institutions.
      • In May 2021, graffiti appeared warning ethnic Hungarians to leave the country lest they or “be poisoned like rats.”

2. Why does the new law, adopted  July 1, 2021, fail to recognize the Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, Russians and Poles as ‘indigenous’ minorities?
On numerous occasions, the Council of Europe’s advisory Venice Commission, among others, has told Ukraine that it is unacceptable to establish different levels and degrees for the rights of persons belonging to national minorities versus indigenous peoples. Despite Ukrainian assertions to the contrary, the new law does not meet the ILO definition of “indigenous”, as nowhere does Convention 169 establish lack of a kin-state as part of this definition, yet this is precisely what the Ukrainian law hinges upon.1 The clear intent of the law is to circumvent the established minority rights of the affected communities.

3. Why does your government ignore objections by NATO, Council of Europe, Venice Commission, and European Union to the latest updates to the Laws on Education and the State Language, which further restrict native language education and use of minority languages in public administration?2
The two updated versions of prior laws rescind and curtail rights granted in the prior 25 years and have a devastating impact on the cultural survival of Ukraine’s smaller national minorities.

4. Why does the recent draft law, intended to replace the law on national minorities in force since 1992, omit the very term “minority” from its title?
Hungarian minority representatives have pointed out that the current draft Law on National Communities is unconstitutional and possibly a bid to evade Ukraine’s commitments to international minority rights instruments, by using the non-legally binding term “communities” instead of “minorities”. Since the draft law ignores the recommendations submitted by the affected minorities, the parliament should now at least consider the proposed amendments recently submitted by national minorities.

For additional details see letters from László Brenzovics and the president of the Hungarian Teachers Association of Subcarpathia to President Zelensky dated June 9, 2021 and May 26, 2021; along with László Brenzovics’s letter and attachment to Commissioner for Human Rights Mijatovic of the Council of Europe.

1 “peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.”
2 Venice Commission Opinion (902/2017) on the Law on Education and Venice Commission Opinion (960/2019) on the Law Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language.