NATIONAL MINORITIES POLICIES IN LITHUANIA: A SUCCESS STORY?Continued from the Fall 2009 issue of BELARUSIAN REVIEW
4.3 Lithuanian domestic law regarding national minorities
Lithuania was the first country in Central and East Europe which passed a Law on National (Ethnic) Minorities (1989 and amended in 1991).20 This document declared the right to foster their language and guarantees that their language shall be respected, including the right to establish cultural and educational organizations. Additionally, the right of national minorities to receive state support for fostering of their national culture, education and access to information is guaranteed.
Lithuanian legislation, however, does not contain any definition of the concept of a national minority21 but country's domestic legislation defines “the number of population and their compact residence” as key factors when the group may granted with the rights “to protect and promote the language, religion, culture and traditions” under the condition of possessing Lithuanian citizenship.22
In fact, Lithuania legislation on national minorities may be described on the base of three factors:
2. Educational policies,
3. Cultural and Language rights.
4.3.1 The citizenship factor
The citizenship issue is rather a question which existed in the early 1990s. The Law on Citizenship adopted by the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR on November 3, 1989 prescribed that those persons who possessed citizenship of the interwar Lithuania23 as well as their descendants are considered as “the body of citizens”. For all other permanent citizens of the Lithuanian SSR (with the exception of personnel in the Soviet army and security service) a “zero-option” was introduced which meant that “all people who lived in Lithuania at that moment could choose the citizenship freely without any restrictions and additional requirements”24. This decision made Lithuania unique amongst other Baltic States – Estonia and Latvia – where citizenship issue remains acute even nowadays. The explanation of this uniqueness is probably explained by different policies of the Soviet authorities towards Lithuania on the one hand and Estonia, Latvia or even Belarus on the other hand – Soviet industrialisation meant for Tallinn, Riga or Minsk massive migration of the labour force from all over the Soviet Union whereas Vilnius faced migration of predominantly ethnic Lithuanians from other parts of the Lithuanian SSR.25 The effectiveness of the zero-option may be proved by the fact that “about 90% of the permanent residents opted for citizenship during this time”26
4. 3.2 National minorities and education
As mentioned above, Art. 45 of the Constitution of Lithuania as well as the Law on National Minorities provide minorities with the right to independently manage their education. The Law of Education (1991, amended in 2003) prescribes that “if national minorities necessitate and request, they may have pre-schools, schools and classes in mother tongue in their densely populated districts” (Art. 12). However, Lithuanian language is a compulsory subject and if the language of instruction is other than Lithuanian, Lithuanian language and literature must be taught in Lithuanian. It is parents who decide on the language of instruction for their children in pre-schools and elementary schools. As of 2000 “total number of schools in the Republic of Lithuania reached 2246, the number of Polish schools - 74, Russian – 68, Belarusian – 1, and 72 combined schools”.27
However, the situation is more complicated than it may seem. First, no school in Lithuania is considered as Polish, Russian or Belarusian. Any school where instruction is conducted in a minority language is considered a Lithuanian school. Secondly, no textbooks printed in Belarus, Poland or Russia are allowed in Lithuanian schools. It means that only those textbooks are allowed which are approved and published under the auspices of the Lithuanian authorities. In practice it means that the difference between educational programmes between schools of national minorities and ordinary schools in Lithuania is only language. Moreover, schools of national minorities use the same curricula which are used by ordinary Lithuanian schools, only issues related to minorities’ culture, language and traditions are added. Additionally, lack of specialists with the knowledge of minorities’ languages leads to the situation when more and more teachers without knowledge of respective language come to work into the minorities schools and pupils have to study in Lithuanian. 28“Now there is an official project accordingly to which 70% of subjects in higher classes of the schools of national minorities would have to be taught in Lithuanian” but it could hardly be considered as a convincing argument as Lithuanian is a compulsory subject in schools and “all minority school graduates speak Lithuanian very well anyway”29
4.3.3 Cultural and language rights in Lithuania
The Constitution of Lithuania and Law on National Minorities creates favourable conditions for the development of cultures of national minorities. On the other hand, Lithuanian authorities try to integrate minorities into the Lithuanian society. For instance, in 2004, the Government of Lithuania approved the Programme of Integration of National Minorities into Society for the years 2005 – 2010 which is focused on three main objectives:
5. integration of national minorities into Lithuanian social, cultural, economic life;
6. preservation of the ethnic identity of minorities; and
7. development of coherent relationships among minorities.30
Different state institutions such as Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education and Science state Departments and the National Radio and TV are participating in the implementation of the programme. Additionally, the Lithuanian state supports cultural institutions which play important role for the minorities’ culture.31
Hence, if minorities may be satisfied with the development of their culture the issue of the use of minorities’ language is the most controversial. Since Lithuania did not ratify the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages the influence of international law in the language sphere may be considered limited and thus the language policy in Lithuania is the subject of the national law. The Constitution proclaims Lithuanian as the state language (Art. 14) and the according to the Law on State language all personal names, names of companies and organizations, names of goods and services provided in Lithuania must be in the state language. The Law on State language also provided the “the Law shall not regulate unofficial communication of the population and the language of events of religious communities as well as persons, belonging to ethnic communities.” It means that minority languages are used in the public life but their official use is strictly limited. These limits may be seen on the base of two examples:
1. writing of personal names
2. street signs in minority languages.
The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania Resolution January 31, 1991 “On Writing of Names and Family Names in Passports of Citizens of the Republic of Lithuania” prescribes that “in passports the names and family names of citizens of the Republic of Lithuania who are of Lithuanian and non-Lithuanian nationality shall be written in Lithuanian letters”. It means that representatives of national minorities are not allowed to officially write their names as grammar rules of their mother tongue require (compare: Lithuanian Valdemar Tomaąevski vs. Polish Waldemar Tomaszewski). The Constitutional Court of Lithuania in its ruling “On the compliance of the 31 January 1991 Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania Resolution “On Writing of Names and Family Names in Passports of Citizens of the Republic of Lithuania” with the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania” of October, 21 1999 decided that this Resolution “is in compliance with the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania”32. Hence, representatives of ethnic minorities in Lithuania are deprived from the right to write their personal names according to the rights of their mother tongues, i.e. using the letters which do not exist in the Lithuanian alphabet.
Situation with street signs in the areas with significant number of national minorities is similar. In February 2009 the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania made a decision that that street signs in the Vilnius districts where Poles constitute majority must be written only in Lithuanian. Similarly, to the Constitutional Court ruling on personal names writing this decision is final and absolute. Thus, despite the fact that the Law on National Minorities prescribes that in the regions which are densely populated by the minorities, a language other than Lithuanian (i.e. minority language) can be used in administration and different offices, minority languages have practically been thrown out of the public use and remained only in the private communication of people.
Officially Lithuania is considered a “success story” in handling the minority issues, a Baltic country without scandalous violation of minority rights and without conflicts on this issue. Nevertheless, as usually happens there are always some problems and issues to work out and to solve. And Lithuania still has space for improvement of the situation, starting with ratification of the Charter for Minority and Regional Languages which will ensure the protection of the rights of minorities on the Council of Europe level, along with bringing national legislation in conformity with the Council of Europe legal framework on this issue, as well as resolving the conflict issues with Polish (and but also Russian and Belarusian) minorities over name writing in official documents, topographic names in the regions with other nationalities being in majority, the educational system. We have to emphasize again that first step of Lithuania towards this progress will be signing and ratification of the European Charter for Minority and Regional Languages.
20. Cultural minorities, groups and communities in Lithuania, Council of Europe/ERICarts, “Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe, 10th edition”, 2009, at : http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/lithuania.php?aid=421.
21. Lithuania at the Euromosaic study, at: http://ec.europa.eu/education/languages/archive/languages/langmin/euromosaic/lith_en.pdf , p.4
22. Lopata R. National Question in Lithuania: Acculturation, Integration or Separateness?, p. 25.
23. This independent state existed between 1918 and 1940 and became a part of the Soviet Union on August 3, 1940.
24. Volovoj V. National Minorities in Lithuania: in Haraszti, Ildikó – Petőcz, Kálmán ed.: Ethnic Stability – Ethnic Changes. Participation of minorities in the decision-making process. Series of international workshops on effective political, economic, social and cultural participation of minorities. Forum Minority Research Institute, ©amorín, 2008. WEBbook: www.foruminst.sk., p. 1.
25. See Snyder, T. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus 1569-1999 (New Haven and London, 2003). Part I The Contested Lithuanian-Belarusian Fatherland, Chapter 5. Epilogue: Soviet Lithuanian Vilnius (1945-1991), pp. 90-104.
26. Lopata R. National Question in Lithuania: Acculturation, Integration or Separateness?, p. 18.
27. Motuzas R. Education of National Minorities in Lithuania in: Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, 7/2001, at: http://www.lfpr.lt/uploads/File/2001-7/Motuzas.pdf, pp. 10-11.
28. Volovoj, National Minorities in Lithuania, p.1.
30. Cultural minorities, groups and communities in Lithuania.
31. Among these institutions there are for instance: Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania or the Vilnius Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania
32. Unofficial English translation of this Ruling is available at: http://www.minelres.lv/NationalLegislation/Lithuania/Lithuania_ConstCourt_Names_English.htm
Hanna Vasilevich is a doctoral student of diplomacy and international relations at Metropolitan University Prague.
This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 4
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