Lithuania’s Minorities: Rights And Problems (III)

Part I, Part II

Political representation

Lithuania has three political parties based on minority ethnic denomination: 1) The Union of the Russians in Lithuania; 2) The Alliance of Lithuanian Citizens (supported by the ethnic Russians), and 3) The Election Action of Lithuanian Poles.[1]

It has to be stressed that in Lithuania, there are no legal regulations guaranteeing representation of the minorities in the national Parliament (Seimas) or in the local (municipalities) councils (the so-called, “positive discrimination”).[2] For example, the minority party as every other must get at least 5% of votes in elections to the Parliament to have representation there. However, in neighboring Poland, these parties have the privilege at the elections as the election threshold does not apply to minority groups.[3]

The Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania is a centrist political party in Lithuania which represents the Poles of Lithuania. For instance, at the parliamentary elections on October 11th, 2008, the party won 4.8% of the popular vote and 3 out of 141 seats in the Seimas. One of its leaders – Waldemar Tomaszewski was a candidate in presidential elections in 2009 won by Lithuanian nationalist and Russophobe Dalia Grybauskaitė. However, he managed to get 4,74% of the votes, that was a good result. He was fourth out of seven candidates. The score suggests that the Polish community in Lithuania is well integrated with high national consciousness as nearly all Poles were voting for their compatriot. W. Tomaszewski won in the Vilnius District, where he received 49,31% of the votes and in the Šalčininkai District with 65% of the votes. The Vilnius District had also a good turnout in the presidential elections. The turnout in the whole Lithuania was about 52%, and in the Vilnius District, it was 55,42% and in Šalčininkai – 56,57%[4]. In these regions, Poles are a majority, which can be a sign of a quite high citizen consciousness of the Polish minority.

Lithuanian National Minorities Culture Museum
Lithuanian National Minorities Culture Museum

At that time, the Polish minority had 3 representatives in the Lithuanian Parliament. Waldemar Tomaszewski, Michał Mackiewicz, and Jarosław Narkiewicz (of course as a Valdemar Tomaševski, Michal Mackevič, and Jaroslav Narkevič) were elected in the single-mandate constituencies in Vilnius-Šalčininkai, Vilnius-Širvintos, and Vilnius-Trakai. Their presence in the Parliament was although questioned by some other MPs because they possessed the Polish Card. This document confirms belonging to the Polish nation of those people who do not possess the Polish citizenship (in Lithuania, double citizenship is illegal).[5] It gives the owner some privileges, like the right to use Polish healthcare, a study in Poland without tuitions, work, and trade in Poland. However, in the opinion of some members of the Lithuanian Parliament (usually of the nationalistic-clerical conservatives), ownership of this card is making loyalty to the Lithuanian country doubtful. If the Constitutional Tribunal would decide that the Polish Card can be treated as a commitment to other countries, the Polish deputies could have lost their mandates in the Lithuanian Seimas. According to the Lithuanian law, the people who are connected with other countries by some obligations cannot be members of the Lithuanian Parliament. Nevertheless, the Polish Card as a document does not establish any commitment to Poland – a decision of the court agrees with this. Therefore, the opinion of certain (nationalistic-clerical) MPs, who questioned it can be treated as a Lithuanian political provocation toward minority representatives, showing distrust to them and even questioning their legal rights based on the international conventions and treaties.[6]

The social distance on an ethnic basis 

According to several prominent researchers, the ethnic Lithuanians proved in the practice to be quite selective in their relationships with other ethnicities in comparison to the Russians or the Poles od Lithuania. It exists a high rate of ethnic Lithuanians claiming they are able always to recognize a person of different ethnic background. Contrary, a big number of Lithuania’s ethnic Poles and Russians are declaring they do not notice a personal identity on an ethnic basis. This practice is confirmed by other international research results as well as like by the European Value Survey which also revealed that the ethnic Lithuanians are practicing higher ethnic closure by declaring (43 per cent) that ethnicity of spouses matters for the luck of marital life (51 per cent think it is not important), while between 70 and 74 per cent of Russians and Poles think it does not matter. On one hand, it can be noticed some differences in the levels of closure or tolerance, but the hierarchy of disliked ethnic groups is very similar for all of the ethnic groups either of the majority or minorities. Nevertheless, selective dislike is unifying all the groups against the most disliked ethnic categories such as Romani/Gypsies, Jews, or Muslims.

Protest against discrimination
Russian-speaking minority in Latvia protests against new legislative attack on their identity

The categories of identity that have been disliked remained stable during the 1990s. The negative reaction to other disliked ethnic categories like drug-addicts or former criminals has changed, but the items of disliked identity remained on the same level and even in the same order. It can be linked to the high level of intolerance for the identity categories to the high prevalence of ethnic recognizing that exists regularly. The official data on social connections and life is showing the ethnic isolation of some of the social segments on the ethnic ground. Despite the current preconditions for the assimilation within the policy of equal rights, certain groups are in the sphere of employment isolated or segregated on the ethnic ground (usually Roma). As a matter of fact, this is primarily a situation on a small scale family business. Another fact is that a lot of ethnic Poles and Russians are working in a monoethnic environment. According to several surveys, some 13 per cent of Poles and Russians, 21 per cent of Jews, or 17 per cent of Muslim Tatars do not have ethnic Lithuanians as their personal friends.

As it is well known, the participation in social life is one of the focal factors in the adaptation and integration of minority groups. In this sense, Lithuania’s ethnic Russians exhibit a striking difference concerning social participation and are the most passive ethnic group. Nevertheless, the lack of participation in social life may result in the marginalization of a big number of the population even to lead to social ghettoization.

Around 20 percent of ethnic minority members believe that it is of extreme importance to be Lithuanian in order to get a good job. Many of those who experienced a certain kind of violation of their rights as the members of the minority group experienced it in the sphere of employment. It means that in reality exist unequal chances for minorities during the process of adaptation and integration.

Social adaptation and integration     

Social adaptation and integration can be understood as processes of the combination of an individual’s aspirations and/or expectations with his/her possibilities and expectations and the requirements of society (i.e., of the majority population). It has to be stressed that in principle understanding both adaptation and integration in broader terms is significant as a person may have not only more but also quite different aims than acquiring a particular civil or national identity. In other words, a minority population may have wishes differently than the majority wants to see as, for instance, instead of active loyalty to the state, a minority may only wish to have social security. Therefore, civil virtues may be of secondary importance.

Lithuania’s ethnic Russians exhibit the conventional features of an ethnic group less than others: They identify less strongly with categories such as territory, co-ethnics in the country, and co-believers. During the last two decades, there is a tendency of religious revival, and it was considered that the Christian Orthodoxy could become the unifying factor for the Russian community, but for different reasons, such expectation did not come true, unlike in the pre-WWII Lithuania.

The worsened social status and general civic passivity among ethnic Russians in Lithuania are clear signs that there are more common problems of adaptation and integration but not an only identity crisis. The greatest contrast in comparison to the majority group is the low social and political status and low education of the Russians. It practically means that both adaptation and integration of ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet Lithuania is directly related to their social-political status.

In the Jewish case in Lithuania, two facts are crucial: 1) The Jews surveyed did not mention religious identity; and 2) The identification with the territorial aspects of the country is relatively weak. Therefore, the Jewish way of adaptation and integration is basically within the same framework as the Russian one. This similarity can be related to the experience of both Jews and Russians as migrants of the Soviet time. However, differently to the Russian case, there is a high level of professional identity among the Jews that is probably in direct connection with their higher level of education.

People march during a Polish minority protest about the autonomy of their schools in Vilnius
People march during a Polish minority protest about the autonomy of their schools in Vilnius March 17, 2012

Ethnic (Muslim) Tatars (like the Jews) are relatively more active in their ethnic organizations. Nevertheless, their attitudes are not always the same as it depends on the living region. For instance, the Tatars living in Vilnius, who are more often the descendants of a historical diaspora, exhibit a higher level of assimilationist attitude to the Lithuanian society.

Poles, probably because of the historical reasons, experienced smaller obstacles in their adaptation and integration as there are no feelings among them of some backing of their ethnic group compared with the Lithuanian majority (it can be only vice versa).[7] Strong identification with its own ethnic living area can be a proof of the strong consolidation of the Polish ethnic minority in Lithuania which has a strong religious (the Roman Catholic) identity, but give not so high importance to education and instead rather emphasizing their social background and links with co-ethnics especially concerning the finding a prosperous job position. The ethnic Poles have the highest rate of ethnic Lithuanians among the relatives – the fact which is very contradicting a wrong opinion about the strong segregation of the ethnic Poles from the rest of society. However, on the other hand, the Poles who considered themselves to be a typical representative of the ethnic group are the real social separatists.

In general, the crucial differences between larger ethnic groups in Lithuania versus historical diasporas are noticeable in the strength of ethnic ties with other group members. The ethnic Russians still experience an identity crisis and are likely to become a minority from a sociological viewpoint. The Poles tend to have the most similar attitudes to those of ethnic Lithuanians and, therefore, the Poles can be the most successfully integrated ethnic group.

Conclusions

This article tried to present some basic areas of life, which are most important when it comes to minority issues. Language is one of the most powerful identity-building tools. The right to use it in everyday life, but also in media, and the public sphere is the most important thing for a national minority to preserve its’ identity and customs. The law of the Republic of Lithuania gives linguistic rights for minorities existing on its’ territory and the possibility to learn at school in mother-language in different ways. The minorities have also the right to create organizations based on nationality and to be represented in the governmental authorities.

According to the legal documents and law, Lithuania is a country that fully respects the rights of people from different ethnic groups. The legal framework is politically correct and at the main points adjusted to international conventions. However, the deeper insight into the real situation shows some controversies and problems, when it comes to the issue of minorities in Lithuania. With every issue that I wrote about, I tried to present not only the legal framework but also some problems with putting it into practice. The example of using bilingual names of places was one of the most glaring. It shows that the existence of the law is not enough to make it works, especially when other, contradictory law is treated as a superior (an example of the collision between the Law on National Language and the Law on Ethnic Minorities). The realization of legal rights is also obstructed by some stereotypes, historical animosities, and lack of trust and tolerance towards groups of other nationalities.

There are still many problems, which were even not presented in the article. Some opinion of the Polish minority leaders shows a lack of satisfaction with a present situation concerning the position and protection of the Poles in Lithuania. This article, for example, did not even deal with controversies like land reprivatization, which is also an important issue in majority-minority relations and can be called as the battlefield relations. Because of a special position of minority members in the social structure, these groups meet also problems connected with their social status. It can be the result of factors like place of living (the Polish minority lives mainly in the villages) or a level of education (Romani minority).

There is like the general practical rule that national minorities are always under some pressure of assimilation from the majority. On other hand, the laws, which regulate the rights of the national minorities are usually favorable for them in most European countries (the same is with Lithuania). That is why much depends on the ability of national minorities to protect their rights. In Lithuania, many organizations try to represent the interests and protect the rights of the national minorities but they are disunited and not presentable. It must be noted that the Polish national minority is more effective in a political sense than the Russian one, but it is not very numerous and so its political influence is limited. The actions of more organized and united work would help national minorities in Lithuania to protect better their rights and to get bigger support from the motherland.[8]

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

Endnotes:

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

[2] See more in [Leslie Green, „Internal Minorities and thier Rights”, Will Kymlicka (ed.), The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 256−274].

[3] See more in [Miroslaw Matyja, The System of Direct Democracy in Poland: Based on the Swiss Political Model, LAP LAMBERT, 2020].

[4] According to the information from the Polish Press Agency.

[5] What concerns the citizenship, in 1994 Lithuania contained some 81.3 per cent of the population who spoke Lithuanian as their first language, with additional ethnic groups who spoke primarily Polish and Russian as their first languages. The language requirements have not been particularly stringent when related to citizenship in Lithuania. However, it was not possible for ethnic Russians who applied to become the citizens of the Republic of Lithuania to hold at the same time and the citizenship of the Russian Federation. Besides, they had to sign a loyalty statement in which they expressed respect for Lithuania’s language, culture, traditions, and customs [L. Barrington, „The Domestic and International Consequences of Citizenship in the Soviet Successor States”, Europe-Asia Studies, 47, 1995, 733].

[6] See more in [Legal Aspects of the Rights of National Minorities, Seminar, Zagreb, Croatia, December 4−5th, 2000, Zagreb: Office for National Minorities of the Government of the Republic of Croatia].

[7] About a general history of Lithuania, see in [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].

[8] About the integration of ethnic minority groups in Lithuania, see in [Natalija Kasatkina, Tadas Leončikas, Lietuvos etninių grupių adaptacija: Kontekstas ir eiga, Vilnius: Eugrimas, 2003].

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