Demonstration by Slavic school pupils

  • 2011-05-25
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

THE JOB WILL BE DONE: Gintaras Steponavicius, minister of education and science.

VILNIUS - On May 19, a crowd of 500 – pupils of Lithuanian state-financed schools with Polish and Russian teaching languages, their parents and teachers – demonstrated in front of the Education and Science Ministry in Vilnius, protesting against the equalizing of the level of the exam on the Lithuanian language in Slavic schools with the exam requirements for the rest of the schools in the country, as well as against the introduction of lessons in history and geography taught in Lithuanian in Slavic schools. Those changes, according to the new law on education, are due to be implemented in the coming fall.

The posters in Lithuanian, Polish and Russian stated the following: “No to forcible assimilation!”, “Leave our schools in peace!”, “We will go on strike?!” The latter poster, in Polish, indeed had that “?!” at the end. According to LNK TV’s non-official information source, pupils were asked in their schools to arrive to this protest and to bring their parents with them.
“The decision is already made and we will do our best to implement it smoothly,” said Gintaras Steponavicius, the Lithuanian Liberal Movement’s man in the post of minister of Education and Science, rejecting the protestor’s demands during his short briefing on the protest which took place in front of his office’s windows.

Latvia witnessed Russian pupils’ protests of this kind against expansion of lessons in the Latvian language in 2004. Russian-speakers make up over 30 percent of Latvia’s population. All people describing themselves as not ethnic Lithuanians together make up 16 percent of the population in Lithuania. The Latvian reform then was much more radical than the current Lithuanian one: 60 percent of subjects are taught in Latvian in Russian schools of Latvia.  Now Latvia’s political party All For Latvia! is collecting signatures among Latvia’s population calling for education in Latvian only in all state-financed schools to avoid a kind of soft segregation and the appearance of social ghettos, caused by language-related issues. In 2004, Russia was as vocal against Latvia as Poland was against Lithuania this year. The state-financed Slavic schools in the Baltics are a relic of the Soviet era.

The creation of language-based ghettos can be dangerous, as was demonstrated by the bloody incident in Lithuania’s ‘Polish’ district of Salcininkai (it was famous for the statue of Lenin which, after re-establishment of independence, was the last of all such statues dismantled in Lithuania due to the local municipality’s love of that communist leader). On May 15, the music fest of young environmentalists from throughout Lithuania was attacked with shovels and metal sticks by the locals in the Salcininkai district. The attackers said something in Russian before beating two young environmentalists, but the latter could not understand a word in that language - they were left puzzled about the reason for such an unmotivated, sudden attack. The two injured environmentalists in the Salcininkai hospital could not understand the hospital’s personnel as well, because the personnel spoke in Russian only.

On May 23, some 100 pupils and Polish activists demonstrated against the new education law in front of the Hungarian embassy in Vilnius. Hungary holds the rotating EU presidency now. “The law should be re-considered, though we do not expect this from the current government,” said Edvard Trusevic, secretary of Lithuania’s Polish Union, at the meeting. The posters, stating “Lithuania, learn from Hungary!” and “Hungary – the ideal state of law” were rather weird because there is almost a consensus in the European Parliament that the Hungarian presidency is a shame for the EU due to the Hungarian government’s attempts to limit freedom of speech in Hungary, and its too radical nationalism. The demonstration seems to be coordinated with the radical nationalist and ultra-Catholic (Poles somehow manage to combine these two opposite ideologies) organizations of Kresy (“Polish outskirts”), which demonstrated against Lithuania in front of the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw a few days earlier.

Due to the education law-related tension, Valdemar Tomasevski, leader of Lithuania’s Polish Electoral Action, who claims to be a defender of all of Lithuania’s Slavs, lost a lot of support from local Slavs, who are unhappy with his radicalism – only 5.5 percent of the population evaluate him positively now, according to a poll by Vilmorus company and published in the daily Lietuvos Rytas on May 21. Tomasevski managed to get into the Top 3 of the most unpopular Lithuanian politicians.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite will have an opportunity to talk to Warsaw’s leaders about it when she visits Poland later this week to participate in the meeting of presidents of Central European states. On May 27, U.S. President Barack Obama will meet Central European presidents there. The Obama visit is important for Poland, which will beg him for a visa-free regime between the U.S. and Poland and for the installation of a base of U.S. fighter jets in Poland. Those issues recall the Lithuania-U.S. discussions of the past: Lithuania has had a visa-free regime with the U.S. since 2008, and a base for fighter jets from the rotating NATO allied countries, including the U.S. and Poland, near the northern Lithuanian town of Siauliai since 2004.