Why does(n’t) Lithuania need the Law on Ethnic Minorities?
Viktor Denisenko: The first Law on Ethnic Minorities was adopted in Lithuania in November 1989, i.e. even before the restoration of the country’s independence. In 1991, the Law faced some modifications and this version remained valid until January 2010. Since then Lithuania does not have any special Law on Ethnic Minorities. This situation could be measured in different ways.
On the one hand, there is the opinion that a new Law on Ethnic Minorities should be prepared and adopted. This law could have a more inclusive title formulated as the Law on Ethnic Communities. The project of the new law was prepared already in 2003-04. However, it was not adopted due to lack of political will. In fact, “the lack of political will” is the main concept which could explain the current situation with the Law on Ethnic Minorities in Lithuania.
The adoption of this Law is still a part of the domestic political agenda in Lithuania, but it is clearly not a priority issue. In 2014, the then Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius promised the adoption of the new Law on Ethnic Communities, but it was not implemented. In 2016 Lithuania had parliamentary elections. The new ruling coalition does not see the Law on Ethnic Communities among its main priorities. For instance, the new speaker of the Lithuanian parliament Viktoras Pranckietis underlined that “there should be no rush” in the process of preparation of the Law on Ethnic Communities.
There is another rhetorical question in the political debate in Lithuania whether the country needs a specific Law on Ethnic Communities at all? This approach is backed by the argument that the persons belonging to ethnic communities are citizens of Lithuania. Therefore, they should not be separated in any way from the Lithuanian civil society.
Those who claim not to rush with the preparation of the new version of Law also argue that the current Lithuanian legislation is quite strong when it comes to the protection of minority rights. The “tools” for protection of the rights of ethnic communities can be found in the Constitution and in other laws (including the Law on State Language and the Law on Education). The protection of minority rights is also foreseen by some legally-binding instruments of the Council of Europe to which Lithuania is a party (i.e. the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities).
However, the representatives of ethnic communities in Lithuania believe that the available tools are not enough. For instance, Mahir Gamzajev, the Head of the Council of Ethnic Communities of Lithuania, emphasized that “the goals of Lithuania’s ethnic policies are not clear without the Law. It is in general not clear whether we have these policies, whether we know what we should do and where we should go?”
This short overview leads us to some conclusions:
First, the Law on Ethnic Minorities/Communities is not an ultimate need in Lithuania. However, adoption of this Law could produce a positive effect for different ethnic communities in Lithuania. Moreover, it could demonstrate more attention of the Lithuanian authorities towards the problems and needs of minorities.
Second, the new Law could decrease the level of possible political speculations related to minority rights in Lithuania, as this issue is being addressed during the election campaigns.
Third, the new Law could help Lithuanian authorities to form clear and well-balanced policies on ethnic minorities and to show the main principles and ways of integration of ethnic communities to the country’s society.