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Rooting out Russian-language schools: Ukrainian MPs pass secondary education bill detailing native tongue enforcement

Rooting out Russian-language schools: Ukrainian MPs pass secondary education bill detailing native tongue enforcement
Ukrainian MPs have dealt a final blow in Kiev’s war on Russian-language schools, voting for a bill which effectively closes them. While seemingly going easy on minorities, it would hit a third of the country's population.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the bill ‘On Secondary Education’ on Thursday. The legislation, which envisions an overhaul of Ukraine’s public school system, received an almost unanimous nod from deputies, with 327 lawmakers voting in favor and only three against. Some 54 MPs abstained and 16 were not present during the vote.

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The bill’s stated goal is to expand the use of the official state language – Ukrainian – in classrooms, while at the same time ensuring that ethnic minorities can still study in their native languages. In practice, however, the newly approved bill, when it comes into effect, will see the Ukrainian language gradually forced upon students at the expense of their mother tongues – and Russian, most of all, is bound to take a direct hit.

Three models, each purportedly catering for a different ethnic minority, will be introduced to regulate the teaching of the Ukrainian language. The first one is designed for stateless nations – Crimean Tatars, for instance – and will see students taught in their native language as well as Ukrainian from the first until the last year of public schooling.

The second model is designed for minorities who speak one of the EU languages, and is believed to be a response to outrage from Hungary, which previously voiced criticism of Ukraine’s new education reform. The model foresees that the share of classes taught in Ukrainian will gradually increase – from 20 percent in 5th grade to at least 40 percent in 9th grade.

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It remains to be seen whether the new bill, which also stipulates that private schools can continue to teach in the languages of their own choosing, placates Budapest.

The third model will apply to the remaining minorities, including the Russian-speaking community, which, according to the 2001 census, makes up nearly 30 percent of the population. The most restrictive of the three, it will see students from 5th grade upwards being taught in Ukrainian some 80 percent of the time in school.

The move effectively eradicates Russian-language schools in Ukraine, which have been a longstanding fixture in the neighboring country. The number of such schools saw a rapid decline in Ukraine even before the bill was introduced, as Kiev has waged a campaign to isolate Russian speakers and push their native language out of public life ever since the Western-backed armed coup in February 2014.

In October, Ukraine’s Minister of Education Hanna Novosad said that while Russian schools still exist in Ukraine, they would all disappear by September 2020. The policy has drawn harsh criticism from Moscow, which sees it as discriminatory.

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