Ethnic Minorities

last updated 29 June 2009

Legislation on Ethnic Minorities in Independent Ukraine

During both the Russian Tsarist and the Soviet Union eras, ethnic Ukrainians had difficulty gaining recognition and respect as a minority group under a Russian majority.  As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1991 and the Ukrainian government took steps to assert its independence, the Ukrainian Parliament spoke out against the Soviet government’s discriminatory policies towards ethnic minorities and passed the Declaration of the Rights of Minorities in Ukraine, leading to the 1992 Law on National Minorities. This was soon followed by other laws and decrees designed to support and promote the culture and autonomy of Ukraine’s many ethnic groups. In 1996 President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree creating the State Committee on Nationalities and Migration of Ukraine, later known as the State Committee on Nationalities and Religion of Ukraine. Minority ethnic groups were even recognized within the Ukrainian Constitution, adopted in 1996. Article 11 of the “General Principles” states that:

The State promotes the consolidation and development of the Ukrainian nation, of its historical consciousness, traditions and culture, and also the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine.

But despite the existence of progressive legislation, Ukraine’s ethnic minorities continue to face discrimination in the workplace and their personal lives, and in some areas ethnic minorities are underrepresented in politics, educational organizations, and the media. The adoption of Ukrainian as the official language of Ukraine continues to be a highly contentious issue for native speakers of Russian or other minority languages. For women, these issues of discrimination become all the more pronounced, as ethnic factors complicate and exacerbate the gender discrimination they already face.  

Ukraine’s Russian Population

While dozens of ethnic groups reside in Ukraine, the largest and most prominent group is Ukraine’s Russian population. Ethnic Russians became an increasingly powerful force in Ukraine from the late 17th century until the end of Soviet rule in 1991. Under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, massive waves of Russian settlers were sent to Ukraine to further the development of Ukrainian agricultural land and industrial projects. After Ukrainian independence, Russians no longer held a privileged status, and following the election of Ukrainian nationalist Viktor Yushchenko, Russian language and culture fell further into disfavor, although it continues to be a strong influence in the eastern half of the country and in the Crimean peninsula. Further complicating the issue, many Ukrainian citizens have a mixed Russian/Ukrainian background, or they identify as Ukrainians but speak Russian at home. Recent changes in the national law requiring schools and television channels to use the Ukrainian language has helped to popularize Ukrainian among younger people. 

The situation for Ukraine’s ethnic Russians varies by region. In western Ukraine, where ethnic Russians are less numerous, ethnic Russians experience occasional acts of discrimination or even violence. Unless specially designated as a minority-language school, public schools are required to teach in Ukrainian, and many employers will hire Ukrainian speakers over Russian speakers.  Electoral laws disadvantage primarily Russian political parties, although recent gains in Parliament by Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party, the Party of Regions, have shown that Russian speakers are still a powerful force in national politics. Ethnic Russians in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, where ethnic Russians constitute approximately 64 percent of the population, are generally subject to little governmental repression or societal discrimination. Indeed, Ukrainian speakers living in heavily ethnic Russian regions face ridicule and discrimination because of their language, accent, or political affiliation. 

Other Ethnic Minorities

Ukraine is also home to a wide variety of Eastern European nationalities, including Jews, Belarusians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Roma, and Crimean Tatars. Many of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities have assimilated, to varying degrees, into the wider culture. Some members of ethnic minorities are comfortable speaking in both Ukrainian and Russian as well as their national language, while many ethnic minorities speak only Russian or Ukrainian, retaining only a handful of phrases from their national language. Members of ethnic minorities are generally well-represented in local elections, while many ethnic minority voters support mainstream parties over ethnic- or religious-based parties, believing them to adequately represent their political interests.

Nevertheless, ethnic minorities do not hold an equal place in Ukrainian society. Racism among law enforcement officials has been a serious problem, with police subjecting people with darker skin, such as those from the Caucasus region, to unlawful identity checks and arbitrary detentions. Police have failed to investigate complaints about racist attacks by skinheads and others. The role of minority languages continues to be controversial as the government installs new policies to “de-Russify” the country and promote Ukrainian language. Ukrainian law permits the use of minority languages, in conjunction with Ukrainian, in public institutions in areas where a minority ethnic group constitutes the majority of the population. But in regions without a clear majority ethnic group, Ukrainian or Russian is usually chosen as the required language for business and education. 

The country’s Jewish population has experienced hostile acts such as the vandalism of synagogues and anti-Semitic expressions in the media.  Once a center of Jewish culture, Ukraine’s Jewish population was decimated during WWII, and in the decades that followed, many Jewish Ukrainians either lost touch with their Jewish identity or emigrated to Israel or North America.  The Jewish Ukrainians that remain, while officially protected under national laws, have struggled to receive equal respect and recognition by a predominantly Christian society.

Crimean Tatars, a prominent minority in southern Ukraine and Crimea, began settling in present-day Ukraine in the mid-13th century. Tatars are a traditionally Muslim, Turkic ethnic group. Forced resettlement of Tatars from Crimea to Siberia during the mid-20th century greatly decreased Ukraine’s Tatar population, but since the mid-1990s many Tatars have returned to Crimea to reclaim what they consider to be their homeland.  In 2001 the number of Tatars living in Crimea was 12% of the Crimean population, and today that number is estimated to be even higher.  This sudden influx of immigrants has been a source of friction in Crimea, largely due to disputes over land ownership and perceived cultural differences. 


Crimean Russians have sought to limit Tatar access to housing, land and jobs, and have objected to government recommendations that Tatars be guaranteed representation in the Crimean government. In 2002 the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers approved the Programme on Adaptation and Integration into Ukrainian Society of Deported Crimean Tatars and Persons of Other Nationalities, and the Development of Their Culture and Education, aimed at easing tensions between Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea and the returning Tatar immigrants.  Both President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko have publicly condemned the deportation and pledged their support to the Crimean Tartar population.  Tatars in Crimea have their own unofficial legislative body, the Mejlis, and are currently fighting to gain its official recognition by the Crimean Parliament.  Although underrepresented in many spheres, such as education and government administration, Tatars currently make up over 10% of the Crimean Parliament, and generally acceptance of Tatars in Crimea appears to be on the rise.

Issues Faced by Ethnic Minority Women

Ukraine’s legislation on ethnic minorities does not specifically mention issues related to gender, although its tenets should apply equally to male and female citizens.  The reality is that female minorities bear additional disadvantages in Ukrainian society. All women in Ukraine face endemic employment discrimination, based on gender as well as marital status, age, and appearance. Among minority women, this discrimination often becomes substantially more pronounced.  Despite what is written in law, many employers refuse to hire women or minorities for professional positions.  Women often can find employment only in positions seen as “appropriate” for women, such as teachers, secretaries, and shop assistants.  Within these fields, employers often hire only women who fit a certain profile, usually those who are young, tall, attractive, and fair-skinned.  This discrimination based on appearance is done entirely in the open, with appearance requirements written into the job description.  It is almost impossible for women with darker skin to find work; employers often believe that dark-skinned women are both unreliable and would “scare off” customers.  Female Roma, or gypsies, are especially marginalized, and open discrimination of Roma is considered socially acceptable in almost all of Ukraine. 

Some Ukrainian minorities, such as Tatars and Roma, are also more likely to be in a lower economic position than more prominent ethnic groups, like Ukrainians or Russians.  Minority women frequently find themselves as the principle or sole breadwinner in the family.  Insufficient government programs or private social assistance exists to help minority women to financially support their families or receive aid when they’ve faced discrimination or abuse.  Racial prejudice leads some minority women to stay fairly insulated within their own ethnic group, avoiding seeking out assistance from government agencies.

However, the Ukrainian government continues to be highly sensitive to the problems faced by Ukraine’s minority groups and new government-sponsored initiatives for promoting minority rights occur almost yearly.  Small legal victories by minority groups have helped to raise public awareness and acceptance, and this greater visibility may lead to greater equality in Ukraine for all ethnic groups.

Compiled from:

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Kasianenko, Mykyta, “Mustafa Jemilev nominated for Nobel Peace Prize: The nomination comes at the First World Congress of the Crimean Tatars,” The Day Weekly Digest (2 June 2009).


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Tatars Push to Regain Their Historic Lands in Crimea,” Today’s Zaman (29 Mar 2007).


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Nations in Transit 2006: Ukraine, Freedom House (2006). 

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Shevel, Oxana, “Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian state: the challenge of politics, the use of law, and the meaning of rhetoric,” International Committee for Crimea (Apr 2003).


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