Vida Montvydaitė: there is no agreement in Lithuania on what national minority isicelds
ICELDS: What problems related to the integration of national communities into Lithuanian society would you specifically point out?
Vida Montvydaitė: First of all, I am glad that we live in a safe, peaceful and democratic country. Representatives of all ethnic groups living in Lithuania have the right to preserve and develop their language, culture, and traditions. However, in any situation of coexistence, various conflicts and problems may occasionally occur that need to be addressed accordingly. Lithuania is home for the representatives of 154 ethnicities. Each of them is distinctive and has its own special needs. In contrast to assimilation, integration is a two-way process. National communities should become a part of society. However, society also has the obligation to provide these communities with the right to preserve their distinctiveness. Therefore, we deal with two-sided problems. On the one hand, they are linked with the majority’s opinion on the right of minorities to self-identification. On the other hand, we have to deal with the position of the minority regarding the rules established by the majority.
Unfortunately, it is still possible in the Lithuanian society to observe negative attitudes towards national minorities. This attitude is often associated with certain stable stereotypes. At the same time, these stereotypes typically occur due to the lack of information, especially in the case of the communities which live rather aloof from the world. Most of our Department’s activities are aimed at overcoming this stereotypical thinking. We seek to change through education and outreach activities, by financing relevant projects, including those aimed against hate speech and ethnic enmity. On the other hand, national minorities should also be helped to get integrated into the society. It is necessary to timely address these recurrent issues and to solve them through dialogue. Thus, we strive to support social activity and the civil identity of the representatives of national communities.
Another important issue for the state is the problem that national minorities can become subjects of political and propaganda manipulations. This is a painful question because these things are primarily intended to create tensions in society. The efforts of the Department alone are not enough to counter this, because in this case joint endeavors of the society, national minorities, the state institutions, and politicians are needed.
ICELDS: Almost a decade has passed since previous Lithuania’s Law on National Minorities was terminated. Does this fact affect the minority policies of the state?
VM: This question contains several aspects. There is no universal model of minority protection in Europe. In general, there are three options. The first one is the regulation of minority rights protection on the basis of international agreements, the second – minority rights protection on the basis of bilateral agreements, and the third – the implementation of minority rights protection in accordance with the most appropriate examples of international practice.
The general trend observed in the EU today is that all issues, including those related to national minorities, are being settled the basis of fundamental values, such as the principles tolerance and respect for human rights. Only eight EU Member States currently have special minority laws, while the rest of the EU countries are governed by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) and/or bilateral and international treaties.
In other words, it is obvious that the minority domain requires political consensus. The Department is also involved in finding consensus between different national communities, especially on the decisions that affect these communities.
ICELDS: Do you then think that Lithuania needs a new law on national minorities, or otherwise is the current minority legislation sufficient?
VM: I’ll start by saying that the rights of national minorities in Lithuania are protected by the FCNM ratified by Lithuania, as well as by the Constitution and other laws in force. At the same time, together with the National Communities Board (Lithuanian: Tautinių bendrijų taryba) we are currently analyzing the draft of the new Law on National Minorities. The Board should consider and submit its proposals on how the “national minority” shall be defined in this law. The members of the Board may also propose other formulations and conditions that in their view should be enshrined in the law.
One should mention the fact that there are four different drafts of the Law on National Minorities currently registered in the Parliament. They significantly differ from each other. Their fundamental differences are associated with the concept of a national minority, i.e. what is a minority and who actually belongs to it.
In the near future, the Department plans to organize a round table on this definition. It may sound strange but currently, there is no agreement in Lithuania on what “national minority” is. For example, the FCNM indicates that “every person belonging to a national minority shall have the right freely to choose to be treated or not to be treated as such”. This provision is supported by the opinion that only ethnic groups without their kin-states shall be regarded as national minorities. However, we will be able to speak about a new law only when we analyze all the relevant proposals on this issue.
ICELDS: You mentioned the National Communities Board acting under the Department of National Minorities which brings together representatives of different ethnic groups. What aspects are important for the evaluation of this body’s activities?
VM: The Board acts as an advisory body. It discusses all major issues related to minority policies. I would say that the Board serves as a “Diet of National Minorities”. Through the Board’s efforts, important minority issues can become a part of the political agenda. For my part, I have to note that we have a fruitful cooperation with the Board and its current chairwoman Gunta Rone. We always try to take into consideration the Board’s position on current issues of importance.
ICELDS: Why does the name of the Board contain the term “national communities”, whereas the Department’s name uses the notion “national minorities”?
VM: As I have already noted, Lithuania currently lacks a well-established definition of “national minority”. The difference in the names can be explained by the fact that the Board consists of the representatives of the communities, i.e. legal entities operating in the territory of the Republic of Lithuania.
ICELDS: How is the Board formed? Is it possible to say that the Board members fully represent all national communities of Lithuania?
VM: The composition of the Board is governed by its Charter. The proportional system is used based on the latest census data. The communities whose number exceeds 100,000 people have three representatives, those whose number ranges from 10,000 to 100,000 have two members, while those whose number is less than 10,000 people have one representative each.
Currently, 28 national communities of Lithuania are represented in the Board, including Poles, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Germans, Roma, Latvians, Armenians, Azeris, Romanians, Moldovans, Georgians, Estonians, and Karaites. I want to stress that the Board also includes representatives of some Lithuania’s national communities whose number is less than a few hundred people, including the Lebanese, Kazakhs, Greeks, Hungarians, Chechens, or Uzbeks.
Taking into account this wide scope, I believe that we can say that the Board members fully represent the interests of national minorities living in Lithuania. I would also like to underline that no one regulates who should the national communities delegate to the Board. The whole process is democratic and transparent. If necessary, the Department of National Minorities can provide a community with the premises to hold the election of its representative to the Board.
ICELDS: Are there significant disagreements among the representatives of different national communities in the Board?
VM: The Board resolves all issues through dialogue. Of course, disputes among its members may occur, as in any democratically elected structure. However, we do not experience any serious disagreements between the Board members. The Board discusses the issues that affect the life of Lithuania’s national communities. Our main principle is that all possible conflicts shall remain behind the doors of the Board.
ICELDS: The reform of minority schools in Lithuania faces significant critics. In your opinion, has this reform been properly prepared? Why does it cause discontent?
VM: It is noticeable that the dissatisfaction with school reform is not directly related to the ethnicity of children or their parents, because this is a very painful and important issue for the entire society. However, I want to mention that there are 120 schools in Lithuania with instruction in minority languages. They are attended by some 30,000 students. In Lithuania, secondary education can be obtained in Polish, Russian, Belarusian, French, German and English. Higher education is also available in the Polish language. The adopted principles of Lithuanian language test assessment are applied to the students of national minority schools.
School education does not belong to the competence of the Department; however, we are actively engaged in non-formal education. For example, the Department allocates funds for weekend schools organized to study the languages and cultures of certain national minorities. According to our data, there are currently more than 40 weekend schools of this kind in Lithuania attended by about one thousand students of different ages. This helps members of national minorities to preserve their ethnic and linguistic identity, develop cultural traditions, learn their native language and history. The Department also supports cooperation between Lithuanian and minority schools. The main goal of this cooperation is the communication of children from different schools with each other.
ICELDS: Recently there was a huge debate on the threat of hybrid war. The 2014 events in Ukraine demonstrated how national minorities can become a subject of manipulation and propaganda. In your opinion, does the existence of this threat change the attitude towards national minorities in Lithuania?
VM: When we speak about national minorities in Lithuania, in one way or another we mention their kin-states, especially since only a few of Lithuania’s ethnic groups do not have their own kin states (like Roma or Tatars). Therefore, it is difficult to disengage ourselves from this issue, especially if the kin-state pursues active compatriot policies. On the other hand, a recent study showed that representatives of national minorities in Lithuania have quite good immunity against foreign information influence. At the same time, the official attitude towards national minorities which since ancient times have been living in the territory of Lithuania is based on the principles of tolerance and respect.
National minorities are an integral part of the Lithuanian state and the history of Lithuania. They strengthen our country, its foundations, culture, and economy. Representatives of national minorities have repeatedly proved their developed civic awareness and loyalty to Lithuania. Let us recall at least the fact that members of national communities actively participated in Lithuania’s struggle for independence, supported the statehood of our country in difficult times and took an active part in relevant social processes.
Image: Dr. Vida Montvydaitė speaks at the Wróblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences (2 October 2018), © Department of National Minorities under the Government of the Republic of Lithuania.