VILNIUS - On March 17, the Lithuanian parliament voted in favor of teaching history and geography in the Lithuanian language in Lithuanian state-financed ethnic minority schools, which are mostly Polish and Russian schools. These additional subjects in Lithuanian will be introduced in the coming fall. Until now, only the Lithuanian language and literature were taught in Lithuanian in those schools. The new law also states that from 2013, the level of the final exam in the Lithuanian language will be equalized in minority schools with the rest of Lithuanian schools. Now pupils of minority secondary schools have an easier version of the exam in the Lithuanian language, which gives them a better chance to get higher marks and, therefore, a better chance to get into universities. The discrimination of Lithuanian-language schools will, anyway, remain: teachers in the minority schools will continue to receive 15 percent higher state-paid salaries than teachers in the other schools, according to Gintaras Steponavicius, minister of education and science.
The vote result of March 17 became predictable already on March 16, when Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski urged the Lithuanian parliament not to adopt the law. Sikorski is known as a 1930s-style bizarre nationalist and, therefore, his words inspired Lithuanian MPs to support the law. On March 16, Sikorski was forced to defend himself from attacks by the opposition in the Polish parliament, accusing him of being just a clerk of the Russian and German foreign offices. In such a case an old fashioned chauvinistic attack against small Lithuania is always helpful. Now Poland, as if to please Moscow’s geopolitical interests, plays the minority card against Lithuania in the same way that Russia used to play that card against Estonia and Latvia. However, as is often the case, what was a drama in the past turns into a comedy during the re-enactment. Not a single bad word came from Russia about the new Lithuanian law (although more children go to ‘Russian’ schools than to ‘Polish’ schools in Lithuania), while in the past, Russia protested against such education reform in neighboring Latvia, where introduction of the state language in minority schools was more radical than in Lithuania now. It means that now Poland has a more Russian-style policy than Russia itself, in this case. Such an attempt to dictate what a neighboring country should do in its educational sphere is very exotic in the EU.
There are three Slavic MPs in the 141-seat Lithuanian parliament and all three of them are members of the Polish Electoral Action, which is a part of the parliamentary faction of the Order and Justice Party of the notorious Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached from the post of Lithuania’s president in 2004 due to his shady affairs with Russia’s citizens. This faction was the main protester against the new law. The Coalition of the Polish Electoral Action and the Russian Alliance is an active player on the political stage of some rural areas in the Vilnius region, where a majority of minority schools are situated.
Only islands of Lithuanian speakers remained in the historically vast Vilnius region till the middle of the 20th century, due to the 18th-20th centuries’ plague, immigration from the south, the former pro-Polish position of the local Catholic Church, the anti-Lithuanian policy of the Russian and Polish states, and the killings of Lithuanian peasants, who dared to speak Lithuanian in their farmsteads, conducted by the underground Polish army during WWII. Part of that historical Vilnius region includes modern-day Belarus.
The parliament’s voting result of March 17 was as follows: 76 MPs said “yes” to the law while 14 voted against it and 29 abstained.
“Polish schools are turned into Polish-Lithuanian schools!” Edyta Maksymowicz, the Vilnius correspondent of the Polish state TV, cried in the usual tearful and hysterical voice on the TV news of March 17, provoking anger all across Poland, where people get simplistic messages from their media: Lithuanians are bad and Poles are good because they are Poles.
“I’m in favor of the mirror principle,” President Dalia Grybauskaite said, stating that the new law will exactly reflect Warsaw’s decision of 2007 regarding teaching languages in the Lithuanian minority’s schools in Poland.
“I’m against the mirror principle. We live in Lithuania and there is no need to look at Poland, Afghanistan or South Africa,” Jaroslav Narkevic, MP of the Polish Electoral Action, said. On the same day, he proposed an amendment introducing obligatory lessons of Christian faith in schools but this was rejected by the parliament. On the same day, Lithuania’s Catholic Church stated officially that it is against obligatory lessons on faith.
Steponavicius said that some MPs were proposing the “Latvian way,” i.e. a much more radical introduction of the state language in minority schools, but he was in favor of the “mirror principle” with Poland. He also said that while the Lithuanian state prints all the textbooks in minority languages for minority schools, schools of ethnic Lithuanians in Poland are forced to use textbooks printed in Polish.
Valentinas Stundys, MP of the ruling Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats and chairman of the parliamentary committee on education, science and culture, explained the reason for the adoption of the new law during his briefing after the vote in parliament. “According to the research conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 42 percent of people belonging to ethnic minorities in Lithuania complain that insufficient knowledge of the Lithuanian language is an obstacle for them to integrate into the labor market,” he said.
Currently, 92.8 percent of pupils (their percentage is constantly growing) go to schools where subjects are taught in Lithuanian, four percent go to schools where subjects are taught in Russian and 3.2 percent go to schools where subjects are taught in Polish. According to the Lithuanian statistics department data of 2009, 84 percent of Lithuania’s residents describe themselves as ethnic Lithuanians, 4.9 percent as ethnic Russians, 6.1 percent as ethnic Poles, and 1.1 percent as ethnic Belarusians who, like Jews, have one Lithuanian state-financed school in Vilnius. Many ethnic minority families want their children to attend schools with Lithuanian teaching language because they think about the future prospects of their children. This is why the Lithuanian-language schools are overcrowded and the Russian-language schools are now half-empty.