Ukraine’s Record on the National Minorities Issue-the OSCE perspective

Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood Roundtable XVI:
Ukraine and the ‘National Minorities’ Question

Ukraine’s Record on the National Minorities Issue-the OSCE perspective

Orest Deychakiwsky

Remarks by Orest Deychakiwsky, CSCE Senior Policy Advisor, delivered at Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Nation Statehood RT XVI: Ukraine and the ‘National Minorities’ Question, held in Washington DC on October 1, 2015.

In my remarks, I address mostly the OSCE perspective and activities on National Minorities in Ukraine, interspersed here and there with my own thoughts.


First, the OSCE (and prior to that CSCE) has had a long-standing interest in the question of human rights/national minorities, starting from the 1975 Helsinki Final Act which specifically cites national minorities — as do many subsequent OSCE documents. The Final Act doesn’t just discuss human rights in isolation but linked them to security – human rights protection is embodied in the notion of “comprehensive security” which recognizes a fundamental link between security and respect for human rights. You will recall that the Soviets et al, and now the Russian as well as other repressive regimes despise that human rights-security linkage. We are honored here by the presence of Iossif Zisels, one of the members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group formed following the signing of the Helsinki Final Act.

At the outset, I just want to underscore that with its war against Ukraine, Russia has flagrantly violated numerous international agreements, including the Helsinki Final Act (all 10 OSCE core principles enshrined in the Act) and numerous subsequent OSCE agreements.

I will focus on the work of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), currently Astrid Thors of Finland, as she is the OSCE lead on these questions. And especially because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, OSCE’s profile has risen. Of course, OSCE is deeply involved in Ukraine, primarily the Special Monitoring Mission, plus various election monitoring missions. In addition, other OSCE institutions are active in Ukraine – Project Coordinator’s office in Kyiv, ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), Representative on the Free

dom of the Media; in addition, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly).
The HCNM gets involved in a situation if there are tensions involving national minorities which could develop into a conflict –so the focus is really conflict prevention, early warning and action at the earliest possible stage to try to prevent ethnic tensions and conflict.

Ukraine’s record

Ukraine has generally respected national minority rights since independence. One of the recent OSCE reports “acknowledges the high level of inter-ethnic tolerance that has traditionally characterized Ukrainian society, as well as the support that the Ukrainian authorities have provided for minority-language education and the cultural activities of national minorities over the years.” So, the country’s track record has been acknowledged as quite good, not only by the OSCE, but by the U.S and international community. Even prior to its independence, national democratic independence movements, notably Rukh, laid the groundwork, and took an inclusive, rather than exclusive approach towards national minorities and actively reached out to them. Since then, most of Ukraine’s elites and most political parties have had a consensus on the provision of support for national minorities. Ukraine has avoided outright inter-ethnic conflict and serious tension – well, at least until Crimea’s annexation.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement, and those international bodies most involved in these questions have been critical of certain aspects of Ukraine’s national minorities policies. Among the issues raised, including by the OSCE: Ukraine still lacks comprehensive and consistent legislation for the protection of national minorities. The 1992 Law on National Minorities is outdated; the institutional framework for designing and implementing policies for the protections of the rights of persons belonging to national minorities remains weak. To cite an example, according to HC Thors in her July address to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, “Since the dissolution of the Committee for Nationalities and Religion in 2010, successive Governments have tried various approaches that have led to fragmentation rather than coherence” and “Ukraine needs stronger institutional architecture to implement its minority rights commitments and promote the integration of its diverse population (not just a unit with only a few staff members in the Ministry of Culture).” So there’s clearly work to be done.

The High Commissioner has made quite a number of visits to Ukraine since the war began last year – except for Crimea, where she has been repeatedly denied, like everybody else in the international community – both east and west (Zakarpattia), and has reached the conclusion of “the need to promote balanced, inclusive and differentiated policies that do justice to the complexity of the country and its rich ethnic, linguistic and regional diversity.”

De-communization and Language

HCNM Thors is, to use her words, “uneasy” about the de-communization laws, adopted by the VR in April (signed in May) without meaningful debate or consultations within society, and her unease is that “a singular historical narrative may not resonate well with the entire population.” So, she calls on the Ukrainian authorities, especially at this time of armed conflict to implement these laws in a balanced way and allow multiple perspectives of history, rather than impose a single truth”, in her words. I must admit that I’m less concerned, especially given the changed dynamic that has taken place in the last 18 months thanks to Putin where Ukraine has become more united — although I do think it prudent to go slow and there are a few provisions that give pause. In May, following the signing, for instance, the OSCE Media Freedom representative expressed concern that the laws could negatively impact the freedom of the press in Ukraine. And the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group characterized one of the laws as “effectively criminalizing public expression of views held by many Ukrainians”.

In her July address, the High Commissioner also noted the language issue and called for balance on that as well, encouraging the authorities to develop a “modern, differentiated and balanced language policy and to improve the legal framework regarding language, including during the constitutional reform process.” She noted that despite Ukrainian being the State language, Ukrainian governments “have always acknowledged the special position of Russian, which is the 2d most widely spoken language in the country and the first language for not only ethnic Russians, but also for millions of other Ukrainian citizens.” According to her, “a new language policy should take this into account, as well as other regional specifics, such as the languages of smaller national minorities residing in the west of the country.” Again, I wonder if this issue, similar to de-communization, has quite the same resonance it once did prior to the war –there’s a different dynamic now. And, frankly, I’m not especially worried about language protection for Russian, given its dominant status – although I do understand the need for a balanced approach. In this context, let me just note that Thors’ predecessor as HCNM, Knut Vollebaek back in 2012, described the situation surrounding the 2012 language law as “deeply divisive” and said at the time: “The disproportionate favoring of the Russian language, while also removing most incentives for learning or using Ukrainian in large parts of the country, could potentially undermine Ukraine’s very cohesion.”

A word about something called The Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter State Relations, which were prepared by the HCNM back in 2008. They are relevant to Putin’s absurd assertion of protecting the Russian minority in Ukraine (“privileged interests”). They stipulate firstly, that under international law, the respect for and protection of minority rights is the responsibility of the State where the minority resides. Secondly, other States may have an interest in the well-being of minority groups abroad, especially those with whom they are linked by ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, or a common cultural heritage. This, however, does not entitle or imply a right under international law to exercise jurisdiction over people residing on the territory of another State. Also, States should ensure that their policies with respect to national minorities abroad do not undermine the integration of minorities in the States where they reside or fuel separatist tendencies.

But Putin is not the only one to ignore Bolzano: although much less flagrantly, Victor Orban, under whose rule Hungary has seen democratic backsliding, has warned that ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine are under threat, adding that the government will protect all of its citizens by any means possible. This is after Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin several months ago summoned the Hungarian ambassador in Kyiv over a top Hungarian official’s praise for the work of Hungarian secret services in Ukraine. Some also question Hungary’s encouraging ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine to take Hungarian citizenship. And there is, from what I understand, a constant barrage in Hungarian media about how Hungarians in Transcarpathia are under threat, which I think is largely manufactured.

Indeed, in her press release assessing her trip to Zakarpattia in July, HCNM Thors said she did encounter generally good inter-ethnic relations, with the minorities there voicing strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but also urged consultation with minority communities in the course of the decentralization reforms.

Some specific HCNM concerns for minorities: by far the biggest concern is the highly disturbing plight of the Crimean Tatars and she has been very active on this score.

Just a few weeks ago, the OSCE HCNM and ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) Human Rights Assessment Mission (HRAM) together issued a comprehensive report on human rights violations in Crimea with an impact on national minorities, with a focus on Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians.

Let me highlight just some points of the report:

First of all, violations of national minority rights it has to be looked in the broader context of serious violations of the full spectrum of human rights: freedoms of speech, expression, media, assembly, association, indeed, personal security, have had a disproportionate impact on the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians as we heard during the earlier panel on Crimean Tatars.

The HRAM found in Crimea that those Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians who openly supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine and did not support the de facto authorities continued to be in a particularly vulnerable position. Not surprisingly, those who have not sought Russian passports (despite having Russian citizenship nominally imposed on them) face all sorts of problems in their everyday lives).

Also, they noted the suppression of activities of Mejlis as well as intimidation, expulsion, or incarceration of prominent leaders of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People has had a detrimental effect on the exercise of political and civil rights of persons belonging to the Crimean Tatar community.

Some other findings of the report:

12. Language studies and native-language education in the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages have been reduced in schools and universities throughout Crimea, to the detriment of those communities’ enjoyment of their cultural and language rights.

17. Effectively forcing Crimean Tatar community-run media outlets, such as ATR, to close by denying their registration has not only restricted media freedom and access to information, but also deprived the Crimean Tatar community of a vital instrument to maintain and revitalize its identity.

18. The space for Ukrainian culture in the illegally annexed Crimea has also decreased. Cultural, religious and symbolic elements of Ukrainian identity have been restricted and/or suppressed through various administrative or law-enforcement measures. Hostile attitudes in Crimea towards residents of Crimea who display Ukrainian state and cultural symbols and publicly celebrate important dates for the Ukrainian culture and history are widespread.

19. Education both in and of the Crimean Tatar language continues to face obstacles.

Education in and of the Ukrainian language is disappearing. Pressure on school administrations, teachers, parents and children to discontinue teaching in and of the Ukrainian language is growing, which further curtails the presence of the Ukrainian language and culture in Crimea.

Jewish community

I agree with the assessments of this morning’s panel on the Jewish community so in the interests of time will not repeat. I will just add that the OSCE Chair’s Personal Representative on Combatting Anti-Semitism Andrew Baker has also given largely positive assessments of Ukraine on this score from what I’ve seen and has also given concrete recommendations on where Ukraine needs to improve, for example, better training for police and the SBU, to more effectively combat hate crimes.


A word about the most marginalized and vulnerable national minority just about everywhere in Europe, and that includes Ukraine. In Ukraine, the Roma continued to face governmental and societal discrimination, although, according to the State Department’s most recent Ukraine Country Report on Human Rights Practices, authorities have become more responsive to Romani community concerns. Romani settlements are mainly located in Zakarpattia/Transcarpathia, Odesa, and Eastern Ukraine.

According to an August 2015 report by the Equal Rights Trust, which I think broadly reflects the consensus among those who follow this issue, Roma are exposed to widespread social prejudice, with levels of intolerance higher towards them than towards any other eth¬nic group, and this corresponds to high levels of hate speech and hate crime. And I must say that sometimes I’m surprised at what I hear people saying about the Roma – things they would never dare say about any other group. Prejudice also has an impact on interaction with the authorities and there are numerous cases of discrimination by law enforcement officials. For a range of historical and social reasons, many Roma lack identification documents, and many experience problems today in trying to secure such documents, as a result of discrimination by the relevant au¬thorities. The lack of documents results in turn in difficulties in ac¬cessing social and healthcare and there is discrimination and inequality in education, employment and housing.

Not surprisingly, Russia’s war against Ukraine has made the Roma situation even more problematic. Roma IDPs are treated less favorably than other IDPs from the Donbas area. And they are even more vulnerable in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas, where there is a total lack of rule of law and respect for human rights in general, so the impact on a vulnerable group like the Roma is felt all the more and there have been some serious incidents in violence in the occupied territories.

OSCE is addressing the Roma issue as well, especially through the OSCE Contact Point on Roma and Sinti Issues. OSCE issued a detailed report on the Roma in Ukraine in September 2014.

To conclude, all in all, in addition to calling attention to the egregious violations of national minority rights by the Russian occupiers, the OSCE I believe is trying to be a good partner in helping Ukraine to prevent inter-ethnic tensions and to better promote inter-ethnic tolerance and enhance the rights of national minorities in a way that will strengthen Ukraine’s security and independence.