Lithuania’s Minorities: Rights And Problems (I)

This text aims to present the Lithuanian legislative framework concerning linguistic rights and minority protection. For the preface, a general overview of minorities in Lithuania is going to be done. It is going to be followed by the presentation of the legal framework of the country. It will be confronted with the facts concerning the situation of minority groups in Lithuania especially two the biggest of them: The Poles and the Russians.

Minorities and minority rights

Minority rights, as applying to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples, are an integral part of international human rights law. They are a legal framework designed to ensure that a specific group which is in a vulnerable, disadvantaged, or marginalized position in society, can achieve equality and is protected from persecution.[i]

The term “minority rights” embodies two separate concepts:

  1. Standard individual rights as applied to members of racial, ethnic, class, religious, linguistic, or sexual minorities.
  2. Collective rights accorded to minority groups.

Collective rights include not only the fundamental right to official recognition and the right to existence and identity but other fundamental rights as a consequence of the recognition. These rights include the right to use one’s language in the public sphere, the right to education in one’s native language, the right to establish separate organizations including political parties, the right to maintain contacts with the kin-state or persons and institutions who share the same culture, and the right to exchange information and mass media in one’s native language. In terms of international law, collective rights mean that a group is subject to the right, and hence a minority as a whole is entitled with rights, not just their single members. The group rights are more than the simple sum-up of the individuals. Minority protection, therefore, requires a combination of collective and group rights.[ii]

The term may also apply simply to individual rights of anyone who is not part of a majority decision. Civil rights movements often seek to ensure that individual rights are not denied based on membership in a minority group. Minority rights cover protection of existence, protection from discrimination and persecution, protection and promotion of identity, and participation in political life.

The recognition and protection of ethnic groups and national minorities is fundamentally an issue of state-level politics, but at the same time minority question has an international character. These problems deal with bilateral agreements containing also minority provisions and international conventions. The main international organizations, which are interested in minority matters are the United Nations (in global terms), the OSCE (in continental term), or the European Union (in regional term).[iii]

Nevertheless, the term “national minority” is still ambiguously defined in specialized literature as well as in the political debate. Generally speaking, “minority” means a community compactly or dispersedly settled on the territory of a state, which is smaller in number than the rest of the population of a state. Members of that community can be citizens of that state, but have ethnic, linguistic, or cultural features different from those of the rest of the population and are guided by the will to safeguard these features.[iv]

A minority is designated as national (“national minority”) if it shares its cultural identity (culture, language, tradition) with a larger community that forms a national majority elsewhere. In contrast to this, the term “ethnic minority” refers to persons belonging to those ethnic communities which do not make up the majority of the population in any state and also do not form their nation-state anywhere (“stateless culture”). Given the difficulties of precisely carrying over the existing great variety of terms into the most important European languages, the Council of Europe (not the European Council), when editing the “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” has chosen to simplify the terminology and decided to use the expression “national minority” in a representative manner.[v]

Minorities in Lithuania

In Lithuania, there are mainly “national” minority groups. Instead of living in the country of their nation, here live the Russians, Poles, Belarussians, Ukrainians, and some, but not many Latvians. Nowadays without strong representation are the Jews and Germans. The pure “ethnic” or “stateless” minority form the Roma (Gypsies), Tatars, and Karaims (Karaites), which do not have their national state. Nevertheless, their number is not the sign but the historical role of Tatars and Karaims in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was very important.[vi]

The most numerous minorities nowadays are the Poles, Russians, and Belarussians. Their presence in Lithuania is a consequence of the turbulent and complex history of the country.[vii] Because of historical changes, changes in the population through the years, decades, and centuries can be observed. For instance, the number of ethnic Russians was bigger in the Soviet time compared to the post-Soviet era: in 1989, there were 344.500 Russian in Lithuania (9.4%) while in 2016 left 6.3%),[viii] or according to the census data from 2001, there were 219.798 ethnic Russians in Lithuania while according to the last census done in 2011, there were 176.913 of them.[ix]

Tatars in Lithuania
The representatives of Tatar nongovernmental organizations gathered 4 February 2020 in the Department of National Minorities to discuss an action plan for year 2021 – the year of Tatar history and culture in Lithuania.

Nearly all minorities in Lithuania decrease in their numbers compared to ethnic Lithuanians during the last 30 years mainly due to three crucial factors: emigration, assimilation, and negative birth-rate. In opposition to many (West) European countries, the post-Soviet Lithuania is becoming more homogenous instead of increasing the migrants’ population. The rate of migration into the country is not very high. Minorities here are groups, which live on this territory for decades and centuries and, therefore, many of them can be put to the category of “autochthonous” minorities. Like most national minorities in Europe, they live in their traditional homeland and due to historic evolution found them included in a state with a major, or “titular”, nation.

As a matter of fact, at the beginning of 2008, citizens of the Republic of Lithuania made 98.7% of the total country’s population what means, differently to the cases of Latvia and Estonia, almost all members of minority groups in Lithuania possess Lithuania’s citizenship and passport. In other words, that means, that people of ethnic-minority origins are Lithuanian citizens but not temporal “migrants”, “foreigners”, or “guest-workers” (“Gastarbeiter”). Most (93.4%) of the country’s residents were born in Lithuania[x]. The ethnic minorities are, in fact, autochthonous, as living in Lithuania for generations. During the restoration of independence in Lithuania after 1990, the citizenship was granted to all individuals on its state territory irrespective of their national identity and without requiring them to learn Lithuanian (differently to the cases of Latvia and Estonia). The 1989 Citizenship Law offers the chance to become a citizen no matter when and how an individual came to Lithuania.

Today, the territory of the Republic of Lithuania covers 65.300 sq. km. (373 km. x 276 km.).

In 2018, there were officially some 2.900.000 inhabitants of whom 66.7% live in cities or towns. The biggest city is Vilnius (540.000) followed by Kaunas (360.000), and Klaipėda (157.000).

The ethnic breakdown of the country is as follows: Lithuanians (83.5%); Poles (6.7%); Russians (6.3%); Belarussians (1.2%); Ukrainians (0.6%), Jews (0.1%); and other very small ethnic minorities. The confessional composition of Lithuania is: Roman Catholics (79%); Christian Orthodox (4.1%); Old Believers (0.8%); Protestants (0.6%).[xi]

Polish minority marching in Vilnius in 2008

According to the official state statistics, in 2001, there were 2.907.293 ethnic Lithuanians followed by 576.679 members of national, or ethnic minorities. However, according to the same source, ten years later (2011), there were 2.561.314 ethnic Lithuanians and 482.115 minorities’ members.[xii]

The legal framework of minority policy

 According to the official legal framework of the Republic of Lithuania, including the Constitution too, all citizens of the country, regardless of their national and other backgrounds, are equal before the law. The Lithuanian Constitution (1991) guarantees equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all people.[xiii]

Today, there are 21 official and registered ethnic (minority) communities in Lithuania (Tautinės bendruomenės Lietuvoje) from Armenian one to Lebanese one. All minority questions are regulated via and by the Department for Ethnic Minorities – Government of the Republic of Lithuania (Tautinių mažumų departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybės) in Vilnius. Several articles of the Constitution are touching the status of the minorities in Lithuania. For instance, Article 37 of the Constitution spells out that “Citizens who belong to ethnic communities shall have the right to foster their language, culture, and customs.”[xiv] Further, Article 45 acknowledges that „Ethnic communities of citizens shall independently administer the affairs of their ethnic culture, education, organizations, charity, and mutual assistance. The state shall support communities“. However, all representatives of the ethnic communities in Lithuania are not satisfied with the official name of the Department dealing with them as they do not want to be called „minority“ but rather „ethnic community“ what is even more fitting to the text of the Constitution.

From the very political point of view, in the Appeal to National Minorities of Lithuania of March 12th, 1990, the Supreme Council-Restoration Parliament committed itself that all political and economical decisions of new and independent post-Soviet Lithuania will be enacted considering the interests of all national minorities living in Lithuania, not humiliating national dignity and rights. We have to keep in mind that on March 11th, 1990, the Supreme Council of Lithuania (today Seimas/Parliament) proclaimed the act „On the Restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania“ and, therefore, it was of extreme importance to attract Lithuania’s ethnic minorities (especially Russian) to support the independence. For that reason, the Appeal of March 12th, 1990 was very favorable for the minorities.[xv]

What is very important, Lithuania since 1991 is a member of the United Nations Organization (UNO) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and since 2004 a member of the European Union (EU). Because of this fact, the country is obliged to respect international conventions concerning human rights and minority rights. Lithuanian law has to be also adapted to the patterns of the EU’s law. Lithuania is, as well as, a signatory of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Finally, Lithuania ratified the most important documents of the Council of Europe in 2000. However, Lithuania has so far not signed the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages most probably to avoid possible regionalization of the country according to the language lines especially fearing Polish nationalism and separatism.[xvi] It seems that there are no such intentions at the moment. We have to keep in mind in this respect that in two of Lithuania’s regions the Poles are composing the absolute majority of the population: in Šalčininkai – 77.8%, and in Vilnius 52.1. Besides, in the Trakai region there are 30.1% Poles and in Švenčionys 26%. The town of Eišiškės has 83% of Poles, the town of Šalčininkai 71% of Poles, or Baltoji Vokė 58% of Poles. In 1989, there were 257.994 Poles in Lithuania but in 2016 left 162.000 of them.[xvii]

Minorities in LithuaniaLithuania has concluded several bilateral treaties with neighboring countries containing provisions on minorities but it is important to note that the treaties do not contain provisions regarding the Roma (Gypsies) – typical for a dispersed minority without a kin state.[xviii]  For example, the bilateral Polish-Lithuanian Declaration on Friendly Relations and Good Neighborhood Cooperation signed on January 13th, 1992, and the following Treaty on Friendly Relations and Good Neighborhood Cooperation, signed on April 26th, 1994, recognized the existence of the Polish minority in Lithuania and the Lithuanian minority in Poland. They also obliged both states to protect their rights on a mutual basis (including the right to education in the respective minority languages).[xix]

When it comes to the Constitution, there are although some controversies. As of Jan Sienkiewicz, an active member of the Polish community in Lithuania, points out, the preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania has the following wording: “Lithuanian nation (…) having preserved its spirit, native language, writing and customs (…)”[xx]. In the opinion of Jan Sienkiewicz, because the terms “native language” and “writing” used here are clearly in the singular, that means that other ethnic groups in the country of Lithuania, using different languages, and having its customs, and literature have been placed outside the constitutionally meaning of the Lithuanian nation (Lietuvos Tauta).[xxi]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] About minority rights in general, see in [Will Kymlicka (ed.), The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2000].

[ii] Thomas Benedikter, Legal Instruments of Minority Protection in Europe – An overview:

[iii] About the protection of minorities by international law, see more in [G. Pentassuglia, Minorities in International Law: Minority Issues Handbook, Strasbourg: CoE, 2002].

[iv] This definition is based on UNO’s understanding of minorities. See more in [Pan Christoph, Beate Sibylle Pfeil, National Minorities in Europe, I−II].

[v] Thomas Benedikter, Legal Instruments of Minority Protection in Europe – An overview:

[vi] Tatars and Karaims are the most „exotic” minorities in Lithuania. Both of them appeared on the present-day territory of Lithuania in 1398 when upon returning from battle in the Crimea, Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (1392−1430) settled Tatars and Karaims, both soldiers as prisoners of war and civilians (their families) in a free area of New Trakai – a town some 30 km. far from Vilnius. One part of them was settled in Vilnius as well. It is known from the sources that the number of Karaim families was 383. Both Tatars and Karaims received important privileges by the ruler. They were protecting the town, the castle-residence of the ruler, being his body guars and professional soldiers while their families have been involved in different types of economy. It was formed in New Trakai small residential quarters of Tatars and Karaims with their sanctuaries: Tatar mosque and Karaim kenessa. Karaims are an ethnic Turkish group belonging to the oldest Kipchak tribe that came from Central Asia, and which never had its state. At the end of the 20th century, there were some 3.700 Karaims worldwide (Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine) of whom in Lithuania lived 300. Karaim religion is a branch of Judaism that recognizes the Old Testament without any rabbinic explanations. They use both Hebrew and Karaim during worship. During the Soviet time, kenessa in New Trakai was the only temple of worship for Karaims in Europe, like all other kenessas (including and kenessa in Vilnius) in the USSR have been closed down. Tatars were brought to Lithuania together with Karaims in 1398 and settled in New Trakai near the southern and western entrances to the town apart of those settled in Vilnius. They not only guarded the town, carried out their army obligations with each household providing an armed horseman with their funds, but also helped in diplomatic relations with different peoples beyond the Volga River such as in Kazan, or the Crimea. Later, the Tatars raised horses and traded in vegetables. In 1609 a big crowd of fervent Roman Catholics gathered in New Trakai and destroyed the local mosque, which never became rebuilt. The Tatars from New Trakai moved to Vilnius. It is estimated that today, around 3.500 Tatars are living in Lithuania who are Sunni Muslims and do not use their language anymore [Karolina Mickevičiūtė, Trakai. A Guide Through the Historical National Park, Vilnius: Briedis, 2013, 20−21; Tautinės bendruomenės Lietuvoje, Vilnius: Tautinių mažumų departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybės, 2018, 47−48, 64−65].

[vii] See, for instance [Zigmantas Kiaupa, Jūratė Kiaupienė, Albinas Kuncevičius, The History of Lithuania Before 1795, Vilnius: Lithuanian Institute of History, 2000; Arūnas Gumuliauskas, Lietuvos istorija (1795−2009). Studijų knyga, Šiauliai: Licilijus, 2010].

[viii] Giedre Jankevičiūtė, Lithuania. Guide, Vilnius: R. Paknio Leidykla, 2016; See in more details, for instance in [Arvydas Matulionis et at., The Russian Minority in Lithuania, Research Report #8, ENRI-East Research Project, 2013].

[ix] Tautinės bendruomenės Lietuvoje, Vilnius: Tautinių mažumų departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybės, 2018, 5.

[x]Statistical Yearbook of Lithuania, Vilnius: Statistical Department, 2008.

[xi] Giedre Jankevičiūtė, Lithuania. Guide, Vilnius: R. Paknio Leidykla, 2016.

[xii] Tautinės bendruomenės Lietuvoje, Vilnius: Tautinių mažumų departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybės, 2018, 5.

[xiii] About recent conditions of human rights in Lithuania, see in [Karolis Liutkevičius et al, Human Rights in Lithuania 2016−2017. Overview, Vilnius: Human Rights Monitoring Institute, 2018].

[xiv] The Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, several editions.

[xv] Stasys Samalavičius, An Outline of Lithuanian History, Vilnius: Diemedis leidykla, 1995, 158−159; Tomas Venclova, Vilnius. City Guide, Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2018, 69.

[xvi] Mercator-Education, The Polish Language in Education in Lithuania, 2006.

[xvii] Lietuvos lenkai: Faktai, skaičiai, veikla, Tautinės bendruomenės Lietuvoje, Vilnius: Tautinių mažumų departamentas prie Lietuvos Respublikos vyriausybės, 2017.

[xviii] Marko Kallonen, Minority Protection and Linguistic Rights in Lithuania.

[xix] Mercator-Education, The Polish Language in Education in Lithuania. About the rights of ethnic minorities in general, see in [Inga Abramavičiūtė et al, Tautinių mažumų teisės, Vilnius: Lietuvos žmogaus teisių centras, 2005].

[xx] The Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, several editions.

[xxi] Jan Sienkiewicz, Przestrzeganie praw polskiej grupy etnicznej w Republice Litewskiej:

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