Ukraine recently adopted new measures with regard to its official language. The new regulations demand that every private business operate in Ukrainian only. This includes websites, advertisements, and all communications with clients. Using other languages is only acceptable upon request. Companies face fines up to EUR 200 for any breach of these rules.
The new regulations help further implement a 2019 language law, which made Ukrainian compulsory in schools, and established ‘quotas’ for all books and media in the country (i.e., 50% of published works, and 90% of all television and radio content, must be in Ukrainian). The law’s aim was to strengthen the country’s official language, which was perceived to be under threat from the cultural influence of neighbouring Russia.
The problem that the law does not account for is the fact that Ukraine is a bilingual nation. About 30% of the mostly urban population speak Russian as their first language, and an absolute majority of people can understand both Russian and Ukrainian—and have no difficulty switching between them. While all state institutions use Ukrainian, they provide translations if (and when) necessary.
The new regulations are thus not based on practical considerations. Their motivation—and that of the original 2019 law—is purely ideological. As such, they are extremely controversial. But Ukraine’s conflict with Russia over Crimea and Donbass, which has been ongoing since 2014, has resulted in the growth of patriotic sentiment in Ukraine. While both natural, and even commendable, such sentiment has driven discussions about ‘national identity’ completely off the rails of rational discourse—and into the chaos of emotional reactions.
One side of the current controversy claims that the new regulations, and the expansion of the law, were long overdue—and that the government should actively enforce the use of Ukrainian whenever possible. On the other side, critics of the measures point to the rights of minorities and argue that many Russian speakers may find it hard to immediately re-adjust to ‘Ukrainian only’.
Other communities within Ukraine, though much less visible, have expressed similar objections—most notably the Hungarians, who historically have lived in the province of Zakarpattia Oblast (in Western Ukraine). They are worried about having to speak a language different from their own. In turn, proponents of the new legislation have argued that very little is really going to change in people’s daily lives and there is no reason to be concerned.
Long suppressed by tsars and Soviets alike, the Ukrainian language seems to have been left too weak to survive on its own merits—and thus requires protection and support. It thus should be actively promoted and propagated as an integral part of the nation’s historical identity. Opposing the new measures is therefore rather unpatriotic—and perhaps more should be introduced.
Such a position may sound reasonable to all who think that healthy nationalism is a fine and respectable position. After all, all countries should take care to preserve their culture and heritage—so what is wrong with the Ukrainian government trying to do just that (especially in light of their continuing conflict with Russia)?
But it is not the ends that are questionable here but rather the means. Free choice of language is important for upholding freedom of speech—especially when it is a matter of ideology as much as of habit. The new measures, however, set a poor political precedent. There is an important difference between using an ‘official language’ across government institutions, including state-owned enterprises, and schools and universities, and forcing it upon private businesses. Not only is this a blatant intrusion into the internal policies of private organizations, it also requires a significant commitment of public resources (for monitoring and enforcement), something Ukraine is hardly able to afford. Additionally, it puts an unnecessary strain on business owners, many of whom already have to deal with complicated regulations and corruption.
Admittedly, it is easy for some businesses to comply with the new regulations. A coffee house employee, for example, can—at least in theory—greet clients in Ukrainian without much trouble, and most do. But those who need a lot of translations—say, lecturers or coaches—may choose to pay a fine rather than hire a specialist or spend their valuable time on learning another language. The law thus results in significant financial losses, as well as unnecessary societal divisions and controversy.
These are all entirely unnecessary, as the market itself already provides a better solution. In fact, there is no shortage of Ukrainian-speaking businesses, especially given that the language is native to 64.1% of the population.
However good its intentions, the state should not overstep its role and punish citizens for what is supposed to be a ‘personal’ choice. This does not mean that no steps should be made towards the protection of the country’s national heritage; but it means that an alternative approach is needed to do it properly (and less crudely).
Instead of punishments, fines, and compulsory quotas, persuasion and education should characterize the government’s approach. One possible option, among many others, is to introduce incentives such as tax cuts for those who need to learn Ukrainian. Another option could be to promote Ukrainian through public outreach and public interest campaigns. It is true that such campaigns require significant investments; but so does recruiting and employing the army of civil servants that would be needed to enforce the 2019 language law.
Winning the hearts and minds of citizens may not be an easy goal for any state to achieve; but it is an achievement rewarded with attachment and loyalty. Patriotism thus has to be an outgrowth of a personal choice dictated by one’s conscience—otherwise, it is worth very little. In the case of Ukraine, the blunt regulations surrounding enactment of its language law will only continue to breed resentment not patriotism.
Ukraine has long been eager to break with her communist past; but in order to do so, she must realise the error of such heavy-handed “Soviet ways.” Instead, it should give her people the freedom to disagree—so that they may choose to preserve their cultural and linguistic identities, and grow to truly love their country. ◼️