Almost 28 years after Ukraine’s declaration of independence, and five years after a quasi-state of war with Russia, a new law imposes the use of the Ukrainian language in all B2C communications in the country.
Signed by outgoing president Petro Poroshenko on May 15, the law will come into effect progressively within three years after its official publication on May 16.
The new law will primarily help Ukrainians willing to receive information about goods and services in the country’s main language. While other languages used in the country, like Russian and Hungarian, are not outlawed, their use by businesses will be restricted in many ways.
Foreign companies selling goods and services to Ukrainian consumers must comply with the new law only if they have subsidiaries, branches or representative offices in Ukraine. This means that international online retailers, game or software publishers, for instance, are not concerned by the new legislation as long as they operate exclusively online from abroad.
After the law comes into force, other businesses will have three years to localize their websites and pages on social media.
The failure to comply with the law in B2C communications will result in a fine ranging from 3,400 to 6,800 hryvnias (about $130-$260) or a warning for first -time violations. Any new violations within one year after the first one will be punished by a fine ranging from 8,500 to 17,000 hryvnias (about $325-$645.)
- Websites, mobile apps and social network communications
All businesses, including foreign ones, registered or having a branch or office in Ukraine will have to maintain a Ukrainian version of their websites, making sure that it loads by default for Ukrainian visitors. The Ukrainian version will have to be of the same size or larger than any other language version. The same applies to mobile applications and communications via social network as they, too, will have to be made available in Ukrainian.
Versions in other languages are allowed but not required.
As specified in art. 27 of the law, software publishers will be required to sell their products in Ukraine with a Ukrainian language user interface (UI) and/or in English, or any other official language of the European Union. (1)
As for computer programs which are pre-installed on devices and appliances sold in Ukraine, a Ukrainian UI will be required. If the software lacks such UI, according to the new law, they will be considered as goods and services of poor quality with regards to consumer rights legislation. Thus, consumers will have the right to demand, during the warranty term, that the item they purchased be equipped with a Ukrainian UI, request a replacement, or go up to demanding a full refund. (2)
All government bodies will be required to use only software with a Ukrainian UI. This means that major software providers will have to create localized versions of their products to be able to sell them to the state-run and local government agencies in Ukraine.
All online stores operating in Ukraine will have to provide information on their products and services in Ukrainian by default, with other language versions possible as translations. At present, most of online stores in Ukraine present their catalogue in Russian. The law also requires that advertisements be offered in Ukrainian.
- Online video
According to art. 23 of the law, online video-on-demand providers operating in Ukraine are not required to demonstrate their video products with a Ukrainian language track but encouraged to load it by default. The law says that the government will help such providers to create and/or obtain rights to Ukrainian language audio tracks for their videos.
The law does not specify, however, the nature of such government support.
Immediately after the new law was passed by the Ukrainian parliament on April 25, pro-Russian MPs submitted four bills against its adoption, thus preventing the parliament speaker from signing it. The authors of the bills claimed that the new law violated the Constitution. A lawsuit was also filed by a pro-Russian NGO on May 10 to prevent the parliament speaker from signing the law; however, the court on May 11 refused to hear it as being groundless. To have the law signed by the speaker, the parliament had to turn down all the three bills first, which it eventually did on May 14.
The Russian foreign ministry called the new law to be “forceful Ukrainization” as it disallowed the use of Russian in favor of Ukrainian and the official languages of the EU.
Russian language has been widely used in Ukraine for centuries, with Ukrainian language rarely even spoken in some regions of the country. Many businesses, including international brands like Citroen and Mercedes-Benz, for instance, adopted Russian language as their main means of communication in this bilingual country. (3)
Upon the passing of the language law by the Ukrainian parliament on April 25 – even before the final version of the law was made public – the Hungarian government on April 26 immediately denounced it, warning Ukraine that Hungary will continue to block high-level Ukraine-NATO talks. In a statement issued on May 16, the Hungarian government again said Ukraine’s new language law goes against its international commitments and curbs the rights of ethnic minorities.
The statement read Hungary hopes the Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky will be willing to “restore balanced and friendly ties between Hungary and Ukraine,” unlike outgoing president Petro Poroshenko.
(1) Since Russian is not included the list of official languages of the European Union, the Russian language interface cannot be used for such purposes. Considering the fact that most of Ukrainians still have little proficiency in English, software publishers will have no option but to offer their products in Ukrainian, so that they could be understood by the end consumers. In other words, Ukrainian will not be mandatory here formally, but in practice its use will prevail.
(2) While home appliances are usually offered with a 12-month warranty, this is not the case, for instance, for vehicles as warranty for new vehicles purchased in Ukraine usually lasts for two to three years. Imagine a situation that you purchased a car with no Ukrainian interface and have driven it for a year. Without a UI in Ukrainian, you can demand the replacement or a full refund. As a consequence, manufacturers will now think twice before offering their products without a Ukrainian UI.
(3) According to linguists, Ukrainian and Russian differ by 38% in terms of vocabulary. For instance, a similar distance (37%) is observed between English and Dutch while such Roman languages as French and Itallian differ by 30%.