Education for national minorities: when content and discourse are equally important

Education for national minorities: when content and discourse are equally important

Kiryl Kascian

The proposals of Lithuanian Minister of Education Gintautas Jakštas to gradually phase out teaching in Russian in secondary schools evoked an emotional response. Although he spoke about the reduction of school subjects taught in Russian, and not about the closure of schools, such statements always provide grounds for all sorts of political speculations and propaganda. This text addresses the above issue and goes beyond the situation of minority education in Lithuania.

One frame with different content 

Various national minority issues cause emotional reactions, not only within the country of residence. However, this topic is attributed to a niche sphere, and its visibility often depends on the ethnic structure of the society of a particular country or region. A trivial example is the comparison of Lithuania and Latvia. According to the latest censuses conducted in both countries in 2021, representatives of the titular ethnic group comprise 62.74% of Latvia’s population, and in Lithuania, the same figure made up 84.61%. According to these statistics, more than a third of Latvia’s population belongs to national minorities, and approximately every sixth in Lithuania. These statistics show that this topic is more pressing in Latvia than in Lithuania. In addition, for historical reasons, the concentration of representatives of national minorities in different regions of the country can vary greatly. For example, within Lithuania, the national minority issues are much more relevant for Vilnius and its environs than, say, for Marijampolė or Panevėžys.

However, even in countries where national minorities comprise a small part of the population, their rights are an important element in testing the domestic political system for maturity and inclusiveness, as representatives of national minorities are citizens of the country with the same rights and responsibilities. In the EU context, it is worth recalling that respect for and protection of the rights of national minorities is one of the Copenhagen criteria. Here, perhaps it is important to mention the recent example linked to the decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. Shortly before, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly introduced changes to the Law on National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine to eliminate possible formal (rather than substantive) criticisms and subsequent claims. However, it is difficult to discuss the uniform standards of national minority rights throughout the EU. Rather, the EU focuses on legal instruments and mechanisms for the protection of national minorities created within the framework of other international organizations, such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

Like most EU countries, Lithuania is a party to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Concluded within the Council of Europe’s framework and binding to its parties, it is considered a key legal instrument for managing ethnic diversity. At the same time, the term “framework” suggests that the domestic implementation of its specific provisions through national legislation and public policy measures can take into account the specifics of each country that is a party to the convention. This means that each country can use its own logic in matters such as minority education. Therefore, there may be significant differences even between neighboring countries.

In addition, even if two neighboring countries have kin minorities on the other side of the border, a symmetrical approach to them is not always possible. For example, some Ukrainian commentators on social networks emotionally react to Orbán’s complaints about the situation of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine’s region of Transcarpathia, and further wonder about the number of Ukrainian schools in Hungary. However, this logic is erroneous. The creation of an education system with a minority language of instruction needs to bring together multiple factors, such as the territorial concentration of an ethnic group in a specific region where they constitute a fairly significant part of the population as well as the demand for such institutions among members of that specific minority. Transcarpathian Hungarians comply with these characteristics. As for the representatives of the Ukrainian minority in Hungary, this is problematic because of objective territorial and demographic factors.

These examples show that minority education remains a prerogative for their states of residence. Despite the existence of minimum standards in this area, a specific state always searches for a balance between necessities and possibilities for its citizens. In this case, citizenship is crucial. For example, there is the Francysk Skaryna Gymnasium in Vilnius, with the Belarusian language of instruction, focused on the educational needs of the autochthonous Belarusian national minority in Lithuania. After 2020, Lithuania admitted tens of thousands of Belarusians. These forced migrants may hypothetically require education in their native language for their children, which could lead, for example, to the opening of one or more classes or schools with Belarusian as their language of instruction. In this case, however, these schools will not be focused on the national minority (i.e., citizens of Lithuania), but rather on newly arrived migrants. This is determined by the will of the state based on the authorities’ desires, expediency, and possibilities.

Who can(not) be an example? 

When talking to “Žinių radijas” Radio, Minister Jakštas referred to the experience of Latvia and Estonia and argued that Lithuania should learn from two other Baltic States who focus on EU languages when organizing the teaching of foreign languages. It is not surprising that various Kremlin propagandists and officials reacted to these statements, because their narratives treat all three Baltic countries as an integral whole. For the Kremlin propaganda machine, it is totally irrelevant that the situation with the education of national minorities in Latvia significantly differs from that in Lithuania.

As previously noted, Latvia is hardly an example that Lithuania should follow in the field of minority education. According to human rights activists and experts, after Latvia joined the EU, there was a rollback in ensuring minority rights, particularly in education.

According to Aleksejs Dimitrovs, a legal advisor for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, 

Latvia’s example is dangerous for the entire European system of minority rights. Both scientists (for example, within the framework of UNESCO research) and lawyers (for example, in UN committees, bodies of the Council of Europe, and the OSCE) emphasize that the presence of minority schools is a positive factor for the preservation and development of ethnic identity, and their presence should be welcomed in every possible way. Latvia, on the contrary, develops a narrative that the very existence of these schools amounts to segregation that poses a danger to social unity.

In its decision on April 23, 2019, in Case No. 2018-12-01, the Constitutional Court of Latvia enshrined this narrative (and subsequently repeated it, for example, in the decision in Case No. 2018-22-01 of November 13, 2019). For example, in para 23.2 of this decision one can read that “[e]xercising the rights of ethnic minorities may not be aimed at social segregation and threaten social unity.” In developing this argument, the court points out that “[i]f those belonging to different identities retreat each in the space of his own identity the possibility of democratic discourse and common activities in a united society is jeopardised” citing (rather paradoxically for a legal document) Francis Fukuyama’s book Identity. Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (London: Profile Books, 2018). At the same time, it seems absolutely unrealistic that a court of a similar level in Spain, Italy, Finland, or Romania would apply this logic, since it would definitely trigger a huge public outcry.

Therefore, Lithuanian education officials should ask themselves whether it makes sense to refer to any Latvian experience in the sphere of minority education as an example. And Russian propaganda has nothing to do with this.

As for the internal Lithuanian context, officials’ statements about the schools of national minorities, against their will, are also a gift for Waldemar Tomaszewski and his party. For the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance and its long-time leader, this is a way to remind the potential electorate about themselves and try to win back a part of the votes of Lithuanian Poles, Russians and representatives of other national minorities that the EAPL-CFA previously lost. Hence, this is a chance for this ethnic party to fully return to the national level of Lithuanian politics.

Note: This text was originally published by DELFI.LT

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