Ukraine language law debate spills into UN Security Council

A clash over a new Ukrainian language law is playing out in the U.N. Security Council

Both Ukrainian and Russian are widely spoken in Ukraine, and many residents use both languages. Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko even pointedly made some remarks in Russian during Tuesday's meeting. Still, Ukraine's linguistic divide has long been a point of political contention in the country of 45 million.

The issue heated up after a Russia-friendly Ukrainian president was ousted amid protests in 2014. Russian officials and media fanned fears that Ukraine's new pro-Western government would force Ukrainian on residents of predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists took control of parts of the region.

Russia requested Tuesday's discussion of the new language law, which passed this spring. It requires the use of Ukrainian in government and media, while Russian can be used in personal communications.

"The biased Ukrainian authorities have undertaken to eradicate" Russian, complained Moscow's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia. He argued that the language rule undermines Security-Council-endorsed initiatives to end the conflict in Ukraine.

"The struggle for the conservation of national and cultural identity should not devolve into an encroachment upon the Russian-language-speaking people of the country," he said.

Ukraine's envoy countered that the language law was an internal matter that didn't warrant the council's scrutiny, and that Russia particularly should stay out of it.

"A country that for centuries suppressed the Ukrainian language, and forcefully replaced it with the Russian in all spheres of public life, is not in a position to tell us now what language we should speak and write," Yelchenko said in English.

Later, as he and Nebenzia traded rebuttals, Yelchenko used Russian, saying it was appropriate to the meeting's "fabricated topic."

For centuries before its independence in the 1990s, Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and then became a Soviet republic under Moscow's sway after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Throughout that time, rulers and educators promoted the Russian language, with the everyday use of Ukrainian surviving mostly in western Ukraine.

Ukraine isn't currently a council member but joined in the discussion, getting support from European and Western members. The United States' political coordinator for the U.N., Rodney Hunter, hailed "the promotion of Ukrainian language efforts to promote national unity."

"Russia perpetually undermines unity," he added.

The discussion veered beyond the language legislation into other flashpoints between Russia and Ukraine and its allies in Europe and elsewhere — matters ranging from Moscow's April decision to fast-track citizenship applications from people living in areas under separatist control to Russia's detention of 24 Ukrainian seamen since a November encounter between a Russian coast guard vessel and three Ukrainian naval ships in the Black Sea.

In May, the council rejected Russia's bid for a language-law discussion on the day of new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's inauguration. Opponents of the request called it an attempt to distract from the inauguration.

Zelenskiy, a Russian speaker, took office after the legislation passed. He has pledged to make sure that "all constitutional rights and interests of all Ukrainian citizens are respected" under the language law.

He also has dissolved the country's parliament and called elections set for Sunday.