A Game of Thimbles with Polish and Lithuanian Schools in Belarus

A Game of Thimbles with Polish and Lithuanian Schools in Belarus

Kiryl Kascian

On 24 August 2021, the website of the National Legal Internet Portal of the Republic of Belarus published an unremarkable decree of the Belarusian Ministry of Education of 11 August No 170, which came into force on 1 September. Behind the legal vocabulary was the abolition of compulsory final exams of the Lithuanian or Polish language for 9 and 11 graders of schools with the respective language of teaching starting from the academic year 2021/2022.

At first glance, the mentioned story is unremarkable. Given the number of Polish and Lithuanian-language schools in Belarus, the story could hardly have made the front pages of the media. Therefore, among the more or less significant media resources only the Belarusian branch of Sputnik wrote about it.

There are four schools in Belarus that teach in languages other than Belarusian or Russian. Two of them are Polish: School No 36 in Hrodna and School No 8 in Vaŭkavysk. Another two are Lithuanian schools: School in Rymdziuny (Astraviec district) and School in Pieliasa (Voranava district). All of them teach according to the programs and curricula of the Ministry of Education of Belarus. The same Ministry also approves rules for certification of pupils’ mastering of educational curriculums.  Such a small number of schools is mostly responsible for the lack of a broad response to the decision of the Belarusian Ministry of Education.

Nevertheless, there has always been a difference between Polish and Lithuanian schools in Belarus. The latter are located in rural areas densely populated by Belarusian Lithuanians. For objective reasons, the number of potential pupils in them is smaller, and they have never been hostages to political tension between official Minsk and Vilnius.

The situation with Polish schools is different. It is quite obvious that two schools in no way meet the needs and social demands of the Polish minority in Belarus, although two schools is better than nothing. We should remind you that there was not a single school with the Polish language of teaching in the post-war BSSR. The last one was closed in Hrodna in 1948, while a full-fledged revival of the Polish-language secondary education took place in independent Belarus. In recent years, both Polish-language schools have repeatedly been the subject of occasional scandals, with one or the other being unable to accommodate all first-graders, and the authorities explaining these restrictions by technical and sanitary norms. It is clear that a compulsory final exam in Polish or Lithuanian in schools with the respective language of teaching is an assessment of the quality of the material mastered by pupils, and its absence raises a huge question mark over the essence of existence of these schools and their future in their current format.

The dates are also important for the analysis of this story. First, on 21 June 2021, the Ministry of Education issued Decree No 129, according to which final examinations in Lithuanian or Polish language are compulsory for pupils of grades 9 and 11 of schools with the respective language of teaching. It was published on the National Legal Internet Portal. Then, on 11 August the education officials of Belarus decided to replay everything and exclude exams of Polish and Lithuanian from the list of obligatory final exams for schools with the respective language of teaching. There is no insider information, we can only guess about the reasons of this trick on the part of the authorities.

However, it is worth recalling that in summer of 2021, the Belarusian authorities further disagreed with their neighbours by unleashing the migrant crisis, which can be considered a hybrid aggression, and also by announcing the suspension of the readmission agreement with the EU and withdrawal from the initiative of the Eastern Partnership. There is every reason to relate actions of the Ministry of Education with the above-mentioned line of the top leaders of Belarus. This is why the manipulations of the Ministry of Education are focal and petty dirty tricks to their neighbours, for whom concern for their compatriots abroad is important.  In general, in this story, the Belarusian authorities, by their actions resemble a thimble-maker, playing with which the loss seems to be not so great, but it is impossible to win with all the desire.

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