Lithuanians make concessions over Education Law

  • 2011-09-21
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Vaidas Bacys works to improve minority relations.

KLAIPEDA - With concessions, even though insignificant to the Poles, it seems that Lithuania has given in to the mounting Polish pressure over the amended Education Law, which strengthens the status of the Lithuanian language in ethnic minority schools. The interstate Lithuanian and Polish working-group, consisting of education experts from both countries, has this week reached in Warsaw an intermediary deal, agreeing that the form of the Lithuanian language state exam will be the same for all Lithuanian secondary school children, Poles included. However, the exam evaluation will differ.

The group was created after a meeting of Donald Tusk and Andrius Kubilius, the countries’ PMs, in the beginning of the month to defuse lingering tensions between the two countries.
“Both sides have agreed that the form of the final Lithuanian language exam will be the same - the writing of a composition - however, the evaluation criteria of the exam will be different in the transition period. Considering the exposed opinion differences over the content of the exam, until the next meeting of the expert groups, the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science will meet representatives of the Lithuanian schools that teach the Polish language and will professionally deliberate the issue,” an announcement, following the meeting, said.

The interstate experts have also agreed on the suggestion that Lithuania’s Ministry of Education and Science include representatives of Lithuanian ethnic minorities in the High Schools’ Final Exam Evaluation Committee at the National Exam Center (NEC).

In addition, the experts decided to make up an NEC Evaluation Committee, which would be entitled to analyze for 8 years NEC-performed research of high school final exams, and according to the would-be committee’s proposals, would improve the exam evaluation criteria.

The expert group, led by the vice-minister of the Ministry of Education and Science, Vaidas Bacys and his Polish counterpart, Miroslaw Sielatycki, has also decided to loosen up the tough regulations determining class-completion in the Lithuanian ethnic schools, which use different languages in the nurturing process.

Thus, in a settlement with several ethic minority schools nearby, the minimum number of 11-12th grade schoolchildren needed to complete a class has been decreased from 12 to 7 pupils. The experts are also soon to come up with their conclusions regarding the applicability of the regulations in 5-10th grades of such schools.
The Lithuanian-Polish experts are scheduled to meet again on Oct. 14 in Vilnius. The draft agenda of the meeting includes deliberations over the proposals regarding financing of ethnic minority schools and the printing of textbooks for this kind of school.

“I am very happy that this kind of expert group has been formed, and I am expecting their meetings to develop into regular get-togethers to tackle the issues. If our countries, which have long-existing cultural relations and active ethnic communities along the borders, were able to create an exemplary model nurturing the minorities, both Lithuania and Poland would win,” Bacys said earlier.
Bacys could not be reached by The Baltic Times.

Miroslaw Sielatycki, vice-minister of Poland’s Ministry of National Education and a member of the working-group, said before the Warsaw meeting that, for both sides, it is “very important” to figure out all consequences of the Education Law amendments.

With the concessions in effect and a 20 percent larger financing for the Polish schools on the way, Lithuanian minority schools in Punsk, the largest Lithuanian settlement in Poland, suffer from insufficient financing. Therefore, several Lithuanian schools might be shut down soon. Besides, due to a lack of funding, the schools are short of Lithuanian textbooks.
“Compared to the Polish schools in Lithuania, we have definitely worse conditions in our schools in Poland, which has been caused by the lower financing. Half of the Lithuanian schools in Poland have been closed already; meanwhile, Ziburys School in Seinai is supported by Lithuania,” Irena Gasperaviciute, chairman of the Lithuanian-Polish community in Poland, asserted to a Lithuanian news outlet.

Bacys had said that he intends to address the issue while meeting his Polish counterpart in Warsaw.
The meeting of the Polish-Lithuanian working-group in Warsaw follows the bilateral talks on reforms to Lithuania’s education system in Druskininkai last week.
The changes to the Education Law obligate Polish schools in Lithuania to use only the Lithuanian language in history and geography classes, and have an obligatory high school graduation exam of the Lithuanian language at the same level for all students, Poles included.

Thus, Lithuania sought standardization of all Lithuanian language high school matriculation exams nationwide by 2013.
The amendments, which came into effect on Sept. 1, have infuriated the ethnic Polish minority in Lithuania. Approximately 2,000 teachers and Polish schoolchildren from the ethnic Polish schools in Lithuania walked out on to the streets in protest of the law at the beginning of September. It took an emergency visit from Polish PM, Donald Tusk, to defuse the tensions. However, the Polish teachers threaten to return on strike if the Lithuanian government does not repeal the law.
The law amendments have been adopted in hopes of strengthening the position of the Lithuanian language in ethnic minority secondary schools. Their children, as a rule, have a bad command of Lithuanian, the state language, after graduation.
The powerful Polish minority of nearly 300,000 in the east of Lithuania, Vilnius and Salcininkai regions, claim that the new education law permits closure of ethnic schools as an alternative to shutting down general schools in case of lack of an adequate number of pupils.

The Lithuanian side has pointed out on numerous occasions that the fears of Poles are unfounded, and that ordinary Poles in the regions are often purposely misled by their political leaders.
Due to the Education Law, the relations between two countries that share several centuries of common statehood have been on a downward spiral lately, but the rhetoric has gotten nastier and thornier in recent weeks. Thus, on Sept. 6, Lech Walesa, the famed Polish Solidarity leader and first democratically elected president of Poland, refused to accept the Lithuanian Presidential Order of Vytautas the Great, which he was awarded this year for his outstanding achievements in developing Polish and Lithuanian relations, expressing his “deep concern” over the current situation of ethnic Poles in Lithuania. Walesa, however, added that he would accept the award if Lithuania changed its State Language and Education Laws.

Poland’s ex-Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski also mounted pressure on Lithuania, stressing that Poland has been waiting for 20 years for Lithuania to ensure basic rights to the Polish minority in Lithuania. “The problem is that not much has been done. We were promised standard solutions to make people’s lives easier, assurances that there shall be no attempts at forced changes of [national] identity. By this, I mean that ethnic Poles would be allowed to spell their names according to their will. We have been waiting 20 years and this has not happened,” Sikorski said on Polish radio, exacerbating the prolonged conflict.

The Lithuanian PM, Andrius Kubilius, countered Sikorski’s remarks, saying, “Polish authorities do not assess the situation of the Polish minority in Lithuania according to objective criteria and are being misled by Polish diaspora organizations living in this country.”

President Bronislaw Komorowski, whose family derives from Lithuania, spoke of the urgent need to resolve the squabbles souring Polish and Lithuanian relations because of the many shared interests between the two countries. He did that probably in the most polite diplomatic way, compared to his high-ranking compatriots, Tusk, Walesa and Sikorski.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was even more assertive in her pronouncement on Lithuanian Radio, claiming that the Polish minority is lacking loyalty to the Lithuanian state.

The statement has enraged members and representatives of the ethnic Polish community.
The Polish-Lithuanian flare-up has been raising nationalistic sentiments on both sides. Thus, in August, street signs and a monument in Punskas were vandalized and smeared with graffiti, which included radical Polish nationalist symbols.
Poles are planning a 5,000-person picket in protest of the Education Law at the Lithuanian Parliament this week.