What's Up Ukraine

Ukraine’s sixth president and new language law4 min read

– On April 7th, governor of Kherson Oblast Andriy Hordeyev resigned following allegations that he had been involved in the murder of anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk. Handziuk’s family, friends, and fellow activists are accusing Hordeyev of having links to organisers of the July 2018 acid attack that eventually led to her death several months later. The incident is still under investigation. (Read more about Kateryna Handziuk in our November edition).

Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Source: RFE/RL

– Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comedic actor, secured a landslide victory in an April 21st presidential run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. The youngest president-elect in Ukrainian history, Zelenskiy now also holds the record for the largest margin of victory with 73.22 percent of votes in his favour. The election was considered by the international community rather transparent and fair. It was also marked by the first presidential debate in the last 15 years, that took place on April 19th at Kyiv’s largest sports arena. The event was highly anticipated, and gathered over 20,000 people at the stadium, according to the police.

The date of Zelenskiy’s inauguration is being currently negotiated between him and the Parliament; meanwhile, on April 22nd, several thousands of Poroshenko’s supporters rallied outside his office in central Kyiv to thank the outgoing president for his service. Poroshenko vowed to stay in politics and promised Zelenskiy his support. At the same time, the election results are clearly bad news for Poroshenko because, among other reasons, Zelenskiy’s election campaign was predominantly backed by Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who is largely seen as Poroshenko’s rival oligarch.

– On April 24th, a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin published on the Kremlin’s official website simplified the procedure of getting Russian citizenship for residents of the parts of eastern Ukraine not controlled by the Ukrainian government. Individuals would only need to submit an application and copies of identification papers issued by the unrecognised ’Donetsk’ or ’Luhansk People’s Republics’, bypassing the usual criteria of living in Russia for five years, renouncing original citizenship, and having a legal source of income. Russian top officials explained this decision as ”the duty of the Russian Federation before those speaking and thinking in Russian,” and aimed at restoration of rights taken from the Donbas residents by ”the Kyivan regime”.

A further decree by Vladimir Putin offered fast-tracking Russian citizenship for more categories of Ukrainians, including those who lived in Crimea before its annexation in 2014, and those who are currently officially residing in Russia.

Both decrees were heavily criticised by officials in Ukraine and worldwide. President Poroshenko condemned the move, calling it “an attempt to justify and legitimize Russia’s military presence in the occupied parts of Ukrainian Donbas”. President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy in response vowed Ukrainian citizenship and asylum to those ”suffering from authoritarian and corrupt regimes”, meaning Russian citizens. The Ukrainian government brought the issue before the United Nations Security Council, multiple members of which similarly condemned the move. Ukraine’s UN representative Volodymyr Yelchenko compared it to Russia’s giving out its passports to residents of South Ossetia during the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict.

Activists attend a rally to demand that lawmakers vote for the language bill. Source: Ukrayinska Pravda

– On April 25th, the Ukrainian Parliament voted in favour of adopting a new bill that grants special status to the Ukrainian language. It is now obligatory for use at work by civil servants, public sector workers, and military personnel. Every Ukrainian citizen or individual seeking Ukrainian citizenship must know the language. The bill also introduces quotas for Ukrainian-language content in television and radio, as well as requiring all print and online media publications be either in Ukrainian or have an equivalent Ukrainian-language version. However, this regulation does not apply to Crimean Tatar, English, and official EU languages. The bill also introduces new regulation in the spheres of education, book publishing, and website language versions, and specifies the procedure for implementing its provisions

The language bill was surrounded by heated discussion, as some saw in it an attack on Russian speakers in this largely bilingual country. Despite this, as members of Parliament cast their votes, hundreds of activists took to streets to express their support for the law. On the same day, president-elect Zelenskiy, who mostly speaks Russian in public, vowed in a Facebook post to “thoroughly analyse the text of the law to ensure all constitutional rights and interests of Ukrainian citizens are observed” once he is sworn into office.

– On April 27th, 17 people were reported dead after a methane gas explosion at a coal mine in a militant-controlled area in Luhansk Oblast two days earlier. The self-proclaimed authorities of the region reported that a part of the coalmine had collapsed while some miners were still inside. The mine had been reopened in 2018 after a four-year period of inactivity since military action began in eastern Ukraine.

Main Sources: Hromadske (EN), Kyiv Post (EN), RFE/RL (EN) Ukrinform (EN), Reuters (EN)

Sasha Mishcheriakova holds a Master’s degree in the CEERES program from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Her dissertation research focused on the politics of memory and attitudes to historical events in Ukraine. Her interests include human rights and multilingualism in post-Soviet states.