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Dr Gaetano Pentassuglia is a Reader in International Law and Human Rights at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law
“President Poroshenko’s inaugural speech in Ukraine’s Parliament last Saturday was received with a standing ovation from MPs and foreign delegates, including US Vice President John Biden and senior EU officials.
While the future of Ukraine and the Ukrainian-Russian relationship remain uncertain, not least because of the ongoing fighting in the east of the country and the still shaky prospects of bringing armed hostilities to an end, Poroshenko’s speech goes as far as to provide some pointers for a longer-term approach to the crisis.
Bold act of defiance
In what appears to be a bold act of defiance against Moscow following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Poroshenko has re-asserted Ukraine’s sovereignty over the peninsula. He emphatically noted that ‘Crimea is and will be Ukrainian’, leaving no room for negotiation on this front.
Poroshenko has also pledged to protect the language rights of Russian speakers and other linguistic minorities in accordance with the Constitution. However, he has made it clear that no national language will be acceptable other than the Ukrainian language.
The speech endorses the notion of more autonomy for the regions and fresh elections in the east, but firmly dismisses claims to turn Ukraine into a federal state.
Poroshenko has promised to seek an ‘international treaty’ that could replace the Budapest memorandum on Ukraine’s security which was signed by the US, UK, and Russia in 1994. The 1997 treaty on the stationing of Russian troops in Crimea with Russia already committed Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In pursuing specific objectives the treaty operates at bilateral, not multilateral level (which is what Poroshenko would like to secure with a new treaty).
For its part, the 1997 agreement makes no mention of Russian-speakers’ rights. A separate bilateral treaty on minority issues could in theory create a better legal framework for assuaging the concerns of Russian speakers. However, experience shows that bilateral treaties may do more harm than good when used for purely political purposes.
As Poroshenko marks the boundaries of Ukraine’s engagement with Russia, it is equally essential for the new leadership to keep some basic facts in mind.
First, the 2012 language law remains in force and must be implemented. Revisions to the current legislation should be carefully considered through a wide process of consultation with all the affected groups before any new proposals are put to Parliament.
Second, while the autonomy of Crimea is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution, Kiev has generally struggled to flesh out the details of such regime. In fact, Kiev has traditionally kept Crimea’s autonomy within tightly defined bounds. There remains to be seen how realistic the prospect of Russia reversing its takeover of Crimea could be. But even if it were to become a viable option at some stage, Kiev’s approach to Crimea would have to be reconsidered.
The rights of Crimean Tatars (and other minorities) are as important as making decisions over the status of Crimea. All European institutions, and more recently the United Nations, have insisted on this matter in response to incidents affecting community leaders and other community members.
The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues has confirmed that minority rights are generally respected in Ukraine, though new policies and programmes have been recommended in order to secure effective minority participation in the decision-making process. In this sense, a more ambitious autonomy framework for Russian-speaking areas could be negotiated with Moscow (with or without a treaty), provided that it is carefully tailored-made and is consistent with the rights of other minority groups within Ukraine under human rights law.
The key point is that the future of southern and eastern Ukraine is part of a broader political strategy employed by Putin to try and maximise Russia’s influence over Ukraine’s future role in Europe and beyond.
From this perspective negotiations between Moscow and Kiev (which were due to start on Sunday according to some sources) are less a matter of minority rights per se and more an issue of how best to accommodate these countries’ overall ambitions within the European (and global) political landscape.”
Gaetano makes a number of both perceptive and interesting points. That Ukraine’s sovereignty and future of its people is partly dictated by broader political disputes seems obvious. Gaetano validly stresses the importance of protecting both Russian language users and other minority rights. I can see why, politically, for a new Ukrainian President it is difficult to support recognising Russian as a second state language. At the same time, from my experience in just two Ukrainian cities (as an observer during the 25 May election), Russian is in fact largely spoken as an everyday language – and I heard the same from election observers across the centre and east. No one reported any discrimination in those areas against Russian speakers – rendering one justification for fighting in the south east otiose. Irish and Welsh are official and favoured languages in Ireland and Wales even though the majority of the population speak English (as sole language or as well). Ukrainian language and culture would not be undermined by clear acceptance of Russian, as long as this was in a way that helped celebrate Ukrainian, Russian and other minority cultures, not impose any.
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