The Baltic Course  

Lithuania – my Motherland

By Olga Pavuk

At all times, the issue of national identity has been considered as one of the trickiest ones. After regaining independence, the Baltic States were again faced to deal with the issue. Nevertheless, it seems that only the Republic of Lithuania has managed to solve the problem of national minorities in a favourable way, now experiencing far less problems than its other two Baltic neighbours

Remigius Motuzas

Photo: The BC archives

The BC met one of the main initiators and introducers of Lithuania’s national programme for the support of national minorities, Remigius Motuzas, the director of the Administrative department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. In the beginning of the 90ties, he was a secretary to the Ministry of Education, and since 1997 was the director general of the Department of national minorities and migration, later again working at the Council of Europe.


Law on national minorities

Already since the times of Sajudis, or independence movement, there was in Lithuania and other Baltic states a lot of emotions on the subject of nationality problems. There was no state language concept in the republic. Many particularly active representatives of the society stood up for the transition of comprehensive schools to Lithuanian as the language of instruction. Sajudis paid a lot of attention to the problem of national minorities, already in 1988, a section of other nationalities was formed, and there was a newspaper in 2 languages. The law on national minorities was adopted already in 1989. By the way, this was the first document of its kind in Europe. In the same year, the first edition of the citizenship law was adopted, according to which all residents of Lithuania could become citizens in two years time. As a result, 98% of the population became citizens.

After the proclamation of independence in March 11, 1990, the native Lithuanians feared the reaction of national minorities – the Polish, Russians and others. It must be pointed out that in Vilnius, more than 60% of the population are still are non-etnic Lithuanians. Vitautas Landsbergis, the former Chairman of Lithuanian parliament, and after plenty of consultations also many other politicians, came to the conclusion that “success can be achieved only if people felt themselves as lawful citizens of the Republic of Lithuania.”


Back to roots

At the time, Kalina Kobeckaite became the head of the Department of nationalities. Her nationality is Karaimian (Karaimians – one of the national minorities in Lithuania), and currently, she is the Lithuanian ambassador in Turkey. At the time, the concept on nationalities was also ratified, in accordance to which “all nationalities, including Lithuanians themselves, should go back to their historical roots, learn their language, culture and history”. Prior to that, there were public opinion polls, which proved a wish to teach children in their mother language. Especially the Polish stood up for the question. If in 1995, 10 thousand Poles studied in their mother tongue, then in 2000, the number has doubled. By the way, as a result, the number of pupils in schools with Russian instruction language slightly decreased.

The Common Convention on the protection of national minorities, which was adopted in 1994, came into force in 1998, after 12 countries of the Council of Europe, including Estonia and Lithuania, ratified it. Latvia signed this document in 1995, but still has not ratified it, allegedly due to insufficient of means for the implementation of its regulations.

Surprisingly, but it is a fact that Lithuania is the only among the Baltic states, where the government provides secondary education in several languages. It is a simple principle: “If understanding and loving the country is taught in one’s mother language, then the integration process of society will be faster”, assures R. Motuzas. Currently, for 82% of pupils in the country the language of instruction is Lithuanian, for 7% - Russian, for 6% - Polish and for 3% - Belarussian. English is a compulsory foreign language, and some others can be added to this.

Since 1989, Russians, Polish, Belarussians and Ukrainians are considered national minorities in Lithuania. 36 national minorities are represented by national groups, which include more than 100 people, and 54 national minorities – by more than 20 people. There are 248 non-governmental organizations in Lithuania, which include Armenians, Azerbaijani, Belarussians, Bulgarians, Estonians, Greeks, Karaims, Koreans, Latvians, Polish, French, Italians, Rumanians, Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Hungarians, Germans and Hebrews. The majority of these organisations are Russian – 59, Polish have 53, Germans and Hebrews – 29 each and Belarussians – 19.


More freedom

Another principle: since 1994-95, all textbooks for any school, comprehensive or  Sunday school, are compiled in Lithuania. The ABC book is called “Lithuania – my Motherland”. It is forbidden to use textbooks, compiled in other countries. Examination questions are broadcasted on television in four languages: Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Belarussian. It doesn’t matter if there are 100 schools with Polish as a language of instruction or just one Belarussian school. Just in Vilnius alone, there are 125 schools with Russian as instruction language. In the countryside, small schools continue their work even if there are only five pupils in a class. “The more freedom is given, the easier is the integration process,” says R. Motuzas.

In early 2002 in Estonia, when the centre-oriented party came to power, they called off a project that envisaged a transition of all state schools to a system with Estonian as a language of instruction in 2007. During electioneering in February this year, Russian-speaking parties, among other things, set a slogan to grant the Russian language the status of a second state language. An example was Finland, where Swedish has gained the status of a second state language. The centre-oriented party submitted to the parliament a draft law on national minorities, according to which business management in Estonia could also be carried out in Russian.

The president of Estonia, Arnold Rutel, considers granting Russian language the status of a second state language as unreal. “In such a case, each doctor, all municipalities and the parliament should have an interpreter, otherwise all Estonians will have to know perfect Russian,” said the head of the state in an interview to the rural newspaper Virumaa teataja. According to the president, a second state language in Estonia would result in “an unbelievable mess, would create a totally new situation in the country”.

Only Lithuanian language and literature are taught in the state language, but if parents want it, then also other subjects are. By the wish of parents, in national minority schools, there are classes with Lithuanian as language of instruction. At the same time, school festivities and other events are held in their mother tongue. Due to that, schools have become in a way culture centres for the national minorities.

Along with schools, the House of National Minorities with its Russian and Polish culture centres is very popular. According to R. Motuzas, the House has become a venue for concerts and exhibitions and a meeting place for painters, writers and Lithuanian social elite for discussion of topical issues that bring together different nations.

Concerning higher education establishments, the decision has to be made by senates of these institutions. Groups with languages of national minorities are assembled, considering demand.

The issue of schools for national minorities in Latvia provoked a governmental crisis in 1933. The country’s centre of demography proposed to close them down. With a majority of votes (among them president Guntis Ulmanis) the project was rejected and resulted in a resignation of the government! Then a member of Parliament Mr Skujenieks announced that patriotism is a good thing, but it should not overwhelm common sense. A member of social democrats, elderly teacher Mr Dekens said: “When I was young, I was a state employed teacher and I was asked to teach Latvian language in Russian. That was mocking. I don’t want such things to repeat again. We should not take away from the minorities what the Latvians fought for.”

Currently in Latvia, one of the sore points is the transition of all schools to a system of state language instruction in 2004. In an interview about the language reform to the daily Telegraf, Latvian Prime Minister, Einars Repse, said: “In order to implement the transition of minority schools to the system with Latvian as a language of instruction, we need money to make this a qualitative process. Personally, I think that the reform should be continued.”


…and culture

Photo: NRA

According to Motuzas, since 1995-96 in Lithuania, there are no problems with the Lithuanian language. Already in the fifth grade pupils of minority groups know it on a good level. At the same time, regulations of the Convention on the protection of national minorities are observed. There are commercial programmes on TV and radio in languages of national minorities. Writing titles of schools and culture centres in languages of national minorities is allowed. In areas with a high density of population, officials with knowledge of several languages is considered as evidence of cultural level. Documents can be submitted in one’s mother tongue at state institutions, and the task of an official is to answer in an understandable way. Social events are held in a language, suitable for the majority of people at the time. It must be pointed out that in Vilnius district, there are only 20.8% Lithuanians, in Salciniskis district – 9.4%, but in Visaginase (around Ignalina nuclear power plant) – 15% of the native Lithuanians. During our interview, Motuzas several times pointed out that in communication among people with different nationalities, “it’s not political opinion, but the level of culture that matters”.

Answering to a question posed by The BC, whether such an approach in Lithuania is not considered as a temporal activity for stimulating the use of the state language in society, Motuzas answered: “No. Lithuanians will need this experience in accession to the EU, when they will become a minority themselves.”

The BC editorial board expresses gratitude to the ambassador of Lithuania in Latvia, Piatras Vaitekunas, for help in preparation of this material.