The FINANCIAL — Hungary has pledged to block Ukraine’s further integration with Europe after Kyiv enacted a controversial education law that critics say will restrict the study of minority languages in schools.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on September 26 that the consequences for Kyiv would be “painful” after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the measure making Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade on, according to RFE/RL.
“Hungary will block all steps within the European Union that would represent a step forward in Ukraine’s European integration process,” Szijjarto said in comments to the Hungarian news agency MTI that were also posted on the Hungarian government’s website.
“We can guarantee that all this will be painful for Ukraine in future,” Szijjarto added.
His comments come two months ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels. A draft statement seen by RFE/RL last week suggests the summit will be dominated by the issue of the EU’s ties to Ukraine and two other ex-Soviet states, Georgia, and Moldova.
The new Ukrainian law does not outlaw instruction in other languages; students can still learn their native languages as a separate subject. Poroshenko said it “raises the role of Ukrainian as a state language in the education process” and “ensures equal opportunities for all.”
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A spokeswoman for the European Union called on Ukraine to make good on Kyiv’s pledge to submit the new law to the Council of Europe to obtain what she called an “expert opinion” on whether it met the EU’s standards.
Maja Kocijancic said such language laws “need to be carefully balanced” between the goal of instituting Ukrainian as the state language and “the need the protect minority and regional languages.”
Once the Council of Europe’s opinion is obtained, Kocijancic said its advice “should be duly taken into account…in advance of implementation of the legislation.”
Poroshenko’s assurances about the law haven’t assuaged the fears of sizable ethnic communities in Ukraine, including Poles, Romanians, and Hungarians. And the law has incensed officials in other countries neighboring Ukraine as well.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has said that the legislation “drastically limits” minority groups’ access to their respective native languages, and he canceled a previously planned trip to Kyiv.
Russia has been particularly harsh in its criticism, saying this month that the legislation was designed to “forcefully establish a mono-ethnic language regime in a multinational state.”
Language has become a hot-button issue across Ukraine, particularly in eastern regions where the majority of the population speaks Russian as its first language.
The new law’s language requirement overturns a 2012 law passed under then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally who fled to Russia two years later amid mass street protests.
That law allowed for minorities to introduce their languages in regions where they represented more than 10 percent of the population.
Kyiv has sought greater integration with the EU under the pro-Western government that took power following Yanukovych’s ouster. That was followed by Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In June, it secured visa-free travel for its citizens to most EU countries in what Poroshenko called a “final exit of our country from the Russian Empire.”
On September 1, an Association Agreement strengthening ties between Ukraine and the EU entered into force.
Yanukovych’s decision not to sign that agreement in 2013 helped trigger the street protests that preceded his fall from power.
With reporting by AFP