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Article Ukraine: New Law Determines Legal Status of Indigenous People

On July 1, 2021, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine adopted the Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine.

The text of the draft Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine, initiated by President Volodymyr Zelensky, had been submitted to the Vertkhovna Rada and published on its website on May 18, 2021.

Provisions of the New Law

The new law recognizes three ethnic groups residing mainly in the territory of Crimea as native Ukrainian peoples and defines the legal status of these indigenous communities. According to the law, ethnic groups recognized as indigenous people must be granted such rights as education in their native language, protection of their historic heritage, creation of ethnic mass media, and establishment of self-governing bodies to represent their interests. Representatives of these bodies can join official Ukrainian delegations participating in various international conferences and events. (Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine arts. 4, para. 1; 5, para. 1; 6, para. 1.) These ethnic organizations and media outlets of indigenous peoples can receive public funding from the state budget. (Arts. 4, para. 2; 7.)

 The new law defines indigenous people as an “ethnic minority within the Ukrainian population that possesses a distinctive language and culture; has traditional social, cultural, or representative structures; considers itself native to Ukraine; and does not have its own state entity beyond Ukraine.” (Art. 1, para. 1.)

The law identifies the Crimean Tatars, Crimean Karaites, and Krymchaks as indigenous peoples of Ukraine. (Art. 1, para. 2.) These ethnicities belong to the Turkic language group, and while Crimean Tatars are Muslims, the Karaites and Krymchaks have their religious roots in Judaism. The Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine differentiates between indigenous peoples and national minorities, which in Ukraine are Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Greeks, and other peoples whose ethnic origins lie outside of Ukraine. These minorities are regulated by another law adopted in 1992

The law implements article 11 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which provides for the protection of native peoples and declares that indigenous peoples must be protected from any action aimed at the deprivation of their ethnicity and integrity as original people; deprivation of their cultural values; eviction or forced relocation from areas of compact settlement; forced assimilation or integration; and racial, ethnic, or religious hatred directed against them. (Art. 4, paras. 1, 2, 3.)

Furthermore, the law prescribes that the Ukrainian state must promote the representation of indigenous peoples in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and local self-governmental bodies of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the city of Sevastopol. (Art. 2, para. 4.)

Criticisms of the New Law

On June 8, 2021, the State Duma (parliament) of the Russian Federation issued a statement condemning the adoption of this law because Russians in Ukraine are not recognized as natives of Ukraine. Members of the State Duma called this legislative initiative “an insult to historical memory and a blatant provocation aimed at escalating tensions and conflicts in Ukraine and abroad.”  

The Gagauz—a community of 32,000 Turkic-speaking people residing in the southwestern part of Ukraine—also expressed their concerns about not being identified as an indigenous people because, according to their leaders, they meet the recognition requirements established by the law.

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