Poroshenko’s Second Term Threatens Ukraine’s European Integration

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President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko pushes the odious language bill to win the elections, despite the split in Ukrainian society, the negative reaction of the European Union and the conflict with Hungary.

Bill at the epicenter of scandal

The draft law “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language” quickly got the status of scandalous. After it was adopted in the first reading in October last year, it had more than 2 thousand amendments, the consideration of which threatens to take several weeks. Most likely, the final vote on the bill will be held right before the presidential elections on March 31. As it is now the law means total Ukrainization without taking into account the interests of national minorities: education exclusively in Ukrainian, a strict 90% language quota in the media and fines for the use of other languages in professional activities. It also stipulates a criminal term of up to 10 years in prison for an attempt to introduce bilingualism in the country – this will be equivalent to the overthrow of the constitutional system. Provisions of the draft law were so severe that they caused misunderstanding even in the ruling coalition. The emergence of such a law in a highly unstable political environment seems to be an ambiguous step. According to surveys, 68% of Ukrainian citizens speak Russian fluently, and most of them use it in everyday communication. Moreover, in the history of Eastern Europe there are enough bad examples related to the manipulation of language policy. For example, in neighboring Moldova, adoption of the law “On the state language” provoked a civil war and the separation of Transnistria. Ukraine itself has even fresher memories – no one has forgotten what was the role of the ‘language’ initiatives of the new country’s leadership in the escalation of the conflict in the Donbas. It is not surprising that the bill has caused a mixed reaction in the West. The Council of Europe and OSCE advised the Ukrainian authorities to involve “different language groups” in the process of its preparation and to postpone the adoption after the presidential elections. The European Union had previously called for the draft to be submitted to the Venice Commission and brought into line with international norms and Ukraine’s commitments, but no one heeded the proposal. Hungary, which already has strained relations with Ukraine after a confrontation over another law – on education, took the draft law on language extremely negatively. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that the law is part of the “anti-Hungarian campaign in Ukraine” and infringes on the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. He also threatened Kyiv with slowing down the process of integration with the EU. “The language law of Ukraine makes it impossible to use the Hungarian language and the language of other national minorities in the sphere of public administration, media and culture. This and other steps run counter to the fundamental rights and norms of international law. Ukraine constantly violates it and its international obligations. Therefore, we will continue to oppose the acceleration of European integration cooperation of Ukraine at all international forums”, said Szijjarto.

Interests of Ukraine are on the altar of victory in the elections

The inconsistency of the wording and the negative international reaction is unlikely to interfere with the success of the bill, which Petro Poroshenko is actively lobbying. Evidently, the head of state carefully prepared for the election race, dropping hints in advance, which at the right time were supposed to bring the ‘catch’ in the form of additional political points. However, neither the Ukrainian autocephaly, nor the  incorporation of the policy of Euro-Atlantic integration in the Constitution yet save the incumbent President. Latest polls still give Poroshenko impassable third place, and almost twice less votes than the leader of the race, Volodymyr Zelensky.  At the same time, the rating of distrust to the head of state reached ‘sky-high’ 69 %. In this deplorable situation Poroshenko is taking increasingly risky and radical measures, and the law on the state language is just one of them. His goal is not so much to win new votes as to mobilize the core electorate in Western Ukraine, where Poroshenko still surpasses his competitors. It is also a call to the most nationalist part of Ukrainian society, which does not yet have a clear favorite in the presidential race. However, the bill has another effect, much more important. Recently, the information background for Poroshenko is close to catastrophic: regular conflicts with voters at election rallies, reports of huge losses in the east of the country, another increase in utility bills. This has also included a large-scale corruption scandal in the Ukrainian defense industry, which involves the President. It is difficult to expect a victory two weeks before the vote in such a negative media environment. Therefore, the law on language now works as a kind of ‘information blind’ – a huge number of amendments will allow for its consideration until the vote on March 31. The wide discussion around the law distracts the attention of the population from the more serious problems that drown the rating of the President. There is no doubt that the sharp public reaction to the bill is well calculated, and it was what Poroshenko wanted. The law on languages has become another evidence that the President plays all-in and does not mind using any tools that will help him break into the second round of elections. Now interests of the country, obviously, are below personal electoral ones. The leader of Ukraine is ready to make any sacrifice, increasing the turmoil in society and making enemies in the European Union, just to stay in power. The question is – if Poroshenko is taking such risky measures now to stay afloat at the end of the first round, what is he preparing for the second?