Main languages: Ukrainian, Russian.
Main religions: Christianity (Orthodox and Uniate Catholic).
As recorded in the 2001 census, the main minority groups include Russians – 8,334,100 (17.3 per cent), Belarusians – 275,800 (0.6 per cent), Moldovans – 258,600 (0.5 per cent), Crimean Tatars – 248,200 (0.5 per cent) and Bulgarians – 204,600 (0.4 per cent). Ukraine also has smaller populations of Poles, Jews, Romanians, Armenians, Hungarians, Roma and other nationalities. While a subsequent census was supposed to be conducted in 2011, it has been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled to take place in 2020.
By 1989, although Russians were only in the majority in Crimea, they formed sizeable minorities in many of the other regions. The numerical strength of the Russians is reinforced by the importance of the Russian language in the republic. The 2001 Ukrainian census indicated that 14.8 per cent of ethnic Ukrainians considered Russian their first language. There continues to be extensive bilingualism in Ukraine and many of those who identified themselves as Ukrainian-speakers also know Russian very well. The Russian-Ukrainian linguistic boundary is itself fluid, especially in the central and eastern parts of the country, where a hybrid vernacular known as surzhik is widely used.
Since the 1989 census a sizeable emigration has severely depleted the Jewish population, which in 2001 accounted for 103,600 people or 0.2 per cent of the population. At the same time, a lively Jewish cultural and religious life has developed in many parts of Ukraine. Jews have also organized a Jewish Congress. Jews are largely settled in Russified urban areas and the majority of them are Russian-speakers. The Ukrainian government has made significant efforts to foster good relations with the Jewish community and has also sought close contacts with Israel. There are, however, numerous anti-Semitic groups active in Ukraine.
There were 151,000 Romanians and 258,600 Moldovans in Ukraine in the 2001 census. Determining the exact number of each group is controversial because of uncertainty about the nature of Moldovan identity (see Moldova). Northern Bukovyna (Chernivtsi) and southern Bessarabia (parts of the Odessa Oblast) were transferred from Romania to the UkSSR under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed on 23 August 1939. The Romanian/Moldovan population of Chernivsti has been active since independence demanding cultural and political concessions from the Ukrainian government, particularly special language rights in areas of compact settlement.
In December 1991, some Romanians/Moldovans in Chernivsti are reported to have boycotted the referendum on Ukrainian independence. The Romanian government declared the referendum void in the area and has sought to raise the issue of the 1939 territorial transfer in negotiations with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has refused to discuss the territorial question or to repudiate the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.
Ethnic Bulgarians are concentrated in the Odessa region, around the town of Bolhrad and on the Zaporizhian coast. As with the Bulgarians in Moldova, the Bulgarian government has sought to build ties to the Bulgarian minority in Ukraine.
In 1941, 350,000 Germans were exiled from Ukraine. In 1992 Germany and Ukraine agreed that Ukraine would resettle up to 400,000 Germans from Russia/Kazakhstan in the southern districts of Ukraine. Settlement has been limited, with most Germans preferring to relocate to Germany itself. Those Germans who have moved to Ukraine have received some assistance from the German government.
Roma remain one of the most marginalized communities in Ukraine. Though the 2001 Census identified some 47,600 Roma in the country, rights groups have estimated they number between 200,000 and 300,000; the Council of Europe, for example, estimates that they number approximately 260,000.
Roma have suffered a long history of exclusion in Ukraine. Though the Roma population is diverse and living conditions vary significantly between different communities and regions, they nevertheless are disproportionately marginalized in almost every area of their lives, from health care and housing to employment and access to justice.
This process of exclusion typically begins at an early age: many Roma children still have limited access to quality education: a survey of Roma conducted in 2018 found that more than a quarter of Roma with one or more children had school-age children not attending school. Roma girls are especially at risk when it comes to dropping out of school due to the persistent practice of early marriages in certain communities and other aspects of gender inequality, including the perception that schooling is less necessary for women than men. In many Roma communities, when girls reach their teenage years they are increasingly involved in household chores and taking care of their siblings.
While poverty, isolation and high levels of illiteracy contribute to their destitution, discrimination against Roma at every level of society, including among police, prosecutors and officials, also plays an important part in perpetuating their secondary status. This discrimination is illustrated by the limited representation of Roma in public life in Ukraine and the increasing prevalence of hate speech and violence by far-right groups – attacks enabled in large part by the impunity that most of the perpetrators appear to enjoy. Troublingly, the series of attacks recently directed against Roma settlements reflect not only the increasingly visible presence of extremist groups in Ukraine, but also a broader climate of anti-Roma sentiment that has contributed to the insecurity communities now face.
Their situation has been exacerbated by the forced displacement of many to Kyiv and other urban areas from conflict zones in eastern Ukraine. A particularly serious incident occurred in August 2016 when scores of Roma had to flee the village of Loshchynivka, near Odessa. After the discovery of the body of a girl who was not from the Roma community, a large crowd of local residents attacked the homes of Roma in the village. Stones were thrown at houses, fences were kicked down and an angry mob demanded that the authorities evict all Roma from the area. Local police did not attempt to prevent the violence and did not apprehend any of the residents causing damage to Roma homes. Following international outcry, the Ukrainian authorities responded by publicly stating that the incident would be investigated, but no action has been taken and the seven Roma families have not been able to return to their homes.
The Republic of Ukraine, formerly called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR), is situated between the Russian Federation to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova to the west, and the Black Sea to the south.
Ethnic divisions in Ukraine are, to a large extent, a legacy of imperial political geography and different conceptions of history held by the peoples of the region. Since the thirteenth century, Ukrainian lands have been at the intersection of shifting empires – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Tatar Khanate, Austro-Hungary and Russia. The prolonged experience of borderland status – ‘Ukraina’ means borderland – has produced a society consisting of a variety of religions, cultures, ethnic groups and languages but little in the way of common institutions to mediate these diverse interests.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet system, which had ensured the primacy of Russians and Russified regions over other ethnic groups and regions, was challenged by new political forces, primarily Ukrainian nationalists. The struggle for power that developed from the late 1980s fostered the emergence of a complex series of interlinked regional and minority problems.
At the heart of contemporary ethnic relations in Ukraine are the competing historical interpretations of the region held by different ethno-linguistic groups. The prevailing Ukrainian historiography, supported particularly by western Ukrainians and the Ukrainian intelligentsia, identifies the emergence of a Ukrainian people separate from the Russians. It is claimed that this identity manifested itself on three occasions when something resembling an independent Ukraine was established: first, the state of Kyivan Rus, which existed from the ninth to the twelfth centuries and collapsed due to internal unrest and Mongol-Tatar invasion – Kyiv was sacked in 1240; second, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Zaporozhian Cossacks established a number of autonomous territories within central and eastern Ukraine; finally, in the period 1917-18 a number of ‘Ukraines’ came briefly into existence before being crushed by external forces. By the early 1920s, the territories that constitute modern Ukraine were divided between Romania, Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
For Russians, in contrast, Ukraine, in terms of both territory and people, is seen to have been historically an organic part of Russia. Most Russian historians take Kyivan Rus to be the forerunner of the modern Russian state. Kyiv occupies a central place in Russia’s political mythology and reclaiming ‘Russian’ territory lost with the Mongol invasion has been an important justification for Russian expansion to the west. The territorial vision of the region has been reinforced by an ethno-cultural theory that links Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians (‘three brotherly peoples’) who together constitute ‘the Russian people’.
In the past, the Russian interpretation of history has been used to justify the introduction of Russian institutions into Ukraine, as well as language, culture and Russian settlers. In imperial Russia, the southern Ukrainian lands were known as Malorossiya (Little Russia) or New Russia, which with Russia and the lands of Belarus constituted the ‘natural’ territory of the Russian state. At the same time, Moscow-inspired policies of modernization fostered a progressive integration of the Ukrainian borderlands into the political and economic core of the Russian Empire.
In Tsarist Russia Ukrainian was viewed not as a separate language but as a dialect of Russian and its use as a means of public communication was restricted. The local intelligentsia was also drawn into the Russian cultural orbit. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church in the late seventeenth century. Although it was briefly revived in the 1920s and 1940s, it was not to re-emerge fully until 1990. The western territories also contained significant numbers of Ukrainians from the Uniate Church.
The Soviet period
While Ukrainian lands remained subordinated to Moscow following the 1917 revolution, Bolshevik rule did lead to an important change in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. For the first time, the view that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians constituted a single people was officially repudiated in Moscow. In the years after the civil war, three separate Slavic republics were established. However, as power was centralized in the Soviet state, pro-Ukrainian policies were reversed. Russian language became compulsory in all secondary schools throughout the republic and it became difficult to publish material in Ukrainian.
Along with the establishment of Ukraine as a separate political unit, the most significant change that took place under Soviet rule was the three-stage territorial annexation along Ukraine’s western border. In 1939, the Red Army occupied the predominately Ukrainian territories of Poland; in 1940, Soviet Ukraine was extended to include northern Bukovyna and Bessarabia (from Romania). Finally, in 1945 union with Transcarpathia was implemented. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation to Ukraine.
The post-Soviet era
The long history of settlement by different peoples in Ukraine has created a set of overlapping and competitive identities among the population. With the territory of contemporary Ukraine only unified in the last fifty years and an independent Ukraine an even more recent development, uniting these diverse peoples within a single state has proved difficult. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, forging a national identity capable of uniting the various regions and peoples of Ukraine became one of the central tasks facing the Ukrainian leadership.
The 1990 Declaration of Ukrainian State Sovereignty guaranteed all nationalities that reside on the territory of the republic the right to national-cultural development’. The 1991 Law on Citizenship granting citizenship to everyone permanently resident in Ukraine prior to independence at the date the law came into force in irrespective of ethnicity. The 1991 Declaration of the Rights of Nationalities established a broad range of minority rights, while the 1992 Law on National Minorities declared state support for the development of minorities. However, the latter did not result in a de facto improvement of minority rights. A State Committee for Nationalities and Religion was set up in spring 1993, reformed several times and finally closed down in 2011: some of its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Culture and others to the State Migration Service.
In 1944, following liberation from Nazi occupation, Crimea’s populations of Tatars, Bulgarians, Armenians and Greeks were deported after being accused of collaboration with the Nazis. In June 1945, the peninsula lost its autonomous status and became part of the Russian Federation. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the jurisdiction of Ukraine as a symbol of the friendship between Ukrainians and Russians.
With large numbers of Russians living on the peninsula, the majority of whom were recent migrants, following independence Crimea became the centre for pro-Russian and secessionist sentiments in Ukraine. Tension in the area stemmed from a mixture of fear of Ukrainianization and Crimea’s difficult socio-economic position. The region is one of the poorest in Ukraine and is overpopulated. The increased pressure on resources brought about by the return of the Tatars from Central Asia has helped to channel social and economic competition into ethno-political confrontation. Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians, who are largely settled in the north of the peninsula, all sought to establish their own ethnically exclusive organisations.
Growing tensions with Russia and the annexation of Crimea
Since independence, Ukraine’s politics have been strongly divided along Ukrainian-Russian ethnic and linguistic lines – at times as a result of the active manipulation of these issues by Ukrainian politicians. Though ongoing for years, the implications of this divide came to a head following the spread of protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych following his abandonment in November 2013 of a planned EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with Russia. Following mass demonstrations in Kyiv, tensions rose between the government and protesters, which led to sustained violence in early 2014, with hundreds killed or injured. On 21 February 2014, Yanukovych was removed from office.
While the primary factors behind the uprising were not ethnic but focused on the corruption of the incumbent government and its close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fault lines within the country reflect entrenched political divisions that are strongly associated with ethnicity. This aspect was sharpened in late February 2014 when pro-Russian militia seized buildings in Crimea, allegedly with Russian support. In March, following a controversial referendum in the region, Crimea was formally annexed as Russian territory.
Since then, Russia has maintained its occupation of Crimea, imposing an increasingly restrictive rule that has seen many Crimean Tatar activists particularly targeted, with many detained or disappeared. Russia has also continued to support pro-Russian separatist groups in Donestsk and Luhansk regions in their ongoing conflict with Ukraine. To date, at least 10,000 people have been killed and many others injured in the fighting.
The regulation of Ukraine’s minority languages, particularly Russian, remains highly sensitive. The law ‘On the Principles of the State Language Policy’ was adopted by the Parliament in 2012 to translate the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages into national legislation. The Law was criticized by civil society organizations and international experts, with some arguing that the law was politically divisive and imposed in a top-down fashion. During the first year of implementation only Russian as the largest language group benefitted from implementation, while its application for other minority languages was very limited. Subsequently, following the ouster of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, one of the first acts of the new parliament was to vote to annul the 2012 law on minority languages, which allowed Russian to be treated as an official second language in parts of the country with a significant Russian-speaking population. This also had implications for other linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples in the country, such as Crimean Tatars, whose language has been classified by UNESCO as severely endangered, as well as Krymchak, Karaites, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian minorities in the country. The recently appointed interim President, Aleksandr Turchinov, subsequently stated that he would not enact the annulment. However, language use remains a source of friction in Ukraine: in September 2017, the government passed a law prohibiting secondary schools from teaching in minority languages, ostensibly to promote better understanding of Ukrainian across the population – a move criticized by international observers as discriminatory. In February 2018, the 2012 law was annulled as unconstitutional by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, meaning that Russian is no longer recognized as a regional language: previously, under the provisions of the 2012 law, it was recognized in 13 districts across the country.
In 2013 the government approved the ‘Strategy for Protection and Integration in Ukrainian Society of Roma National Minority for the period until 2020’, after sustained advocacy efforts and international pressure. The initiative followed the EU’s call for Roma Inclusion national strategies. However, it has attracted considerable criticism for its vague provisions and failure to address the root causes of discrimination, including anti-Roma prejudice and targeted violence against community members.
The Ukrainian authorities have tried to negotiate with Russia on the enforcement of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in the conflict zone. In August 2015, the government lodged an interstate claim before the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) against Russia, alleging systematic violations of the rights of ethnic Ukrainians, minorities and indigenous people to freedom of religion, expression, peaceful assembly and association.
Integration of minority rights frameworks into Ukraine’s national legislation remains limited: for example, the Law ‘On the Protection of National Minorities’ has never been amended, despite many attempts by civil society groups and comments from international treaty bodies. Alongside the elaboration of an anti-discrimination law and legislation on state language policy, the government failed to elaborate a national strategy on ethnic minorities after the draft law ‘On the Concept of the State Ethnic Policy’ was withdrawn from Parliament. National legislation, with the exception of the 1991 Declaration on the Rights of Nationalities in Ukraine, lacks a clear definition of what constitutes a national minority and does not provide any affirmative action to guarantee minority rights.
Updated October 2020
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