Lithuania cares about its ethnic Lithuanians in semi-Soviet Belarus

  • 2000-06-01
  • By Uta Volgmann & Rokas M. Tracevskis
PELESA/MINSK/VILNIUS - Lithuanian cultural life in Belarus is slowly awakening after decades of assimilation during tsarist Russian, Polish and Soviet periods there during the 20th century. About 18,000 people of Lithuanian origin live concentrated mostly in a few villages and towns in the north of Belarus near the Lithuanian border.

The inhabitants of villages Pelesa, Gerveciai and Rimdziunai managed to preserve their Lithuanian language although they are just islands surrounded by the Slavic-speaking population. In those villages Lithuanians are still the majority.

Lithuania and Belarus - good neighbors, but not friends

Relations between Lithuania and Belarus are diplomatically polite, but far from friendly. Lithuanian political analyst Algimantas Cekuolis said the Lithuanian-Belarusian border became a line between Western and Eastern civilizations. It is enough just to look at Belarusian newspapers.

"The creation of a union between Belarus and Russia is a guarantee of our security and sovereignty," wrote Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in his address to the nation published on the front page of his country's main daily, Sovietskaya Belarussya of May 6.

On May 9 Minsk witnessed an official military and civic parade with portraits of Lukashenko, Stalin and Lenin.

Ten days later General Vladimir Uskhopchik was appointed defense deputy minister of Belarus. The Lithuanian Prosecutor General's office accuses him of being a commander of Soviet aggression against Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991, when the Soviet army killed 14 and injured more than 700 unarmed Lithuanian civilians. Officials in Vilnius demanded his extradition to Lithuania for trial several times in the past. Vygaudas Usackas, the Lithuanian vice foreign minister, conveyed Lithuania's dismay to the Belarusian ambassador at Uskhopchik's recent nomination.

"General Uskhopchik knows the smell of Lithuanian blood very well, and he is not afraid of this smell," said Semion Sharetsky, the expatriated chairman of the Belarusian Parliament. Lukashenko dissolved this Parliament. Sharetsky has found refuge in Vilnius. His Parliament is recognized as legitimate by the international community, except Russia.

However, these disagreements do not influence the cultural life of ethnic Lithuanians, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Belarus, so far. In Soviet times the very existence of ethnic Lithuanians was denied by the authorities in Minsk, says historian Rimantas Jasas. The Soviet KGB even detained language scientists from Vilnius or Moscow coming to investigate disappearing Lithuanian dialects. Now Lithuanians enjoy relative cultural freedom there, say leaders of the local Lithuanian community.

For Belarusians themselves, national identity is ambiguous. During Soviet times, most Belarusians started to consider themselves "Soviet people." After the collapse of the Soviet Empire this attitude has not changed much. At the beginning of his presidency, Lukashenko rejected a nationalistic policy. Russian language dominates all spheres of life. There is just one Belarusian language school left in Minsk. Belarus is already occupied by Russia, said Sharetsky.

Trying to preserve the forefathers' culture

Virginija Tarnauskaite, a resident of Minsk and head of the Lithuanian community in Belarus said Lithuanians as an ethnic minority still have some problems.

"They [the authorities] avoid the term 'ethnic minority,' and we are seen as an ethnic cultural group. As long as we sing only Lithuanian songs and dance Lithuanian traditional dances, we do not get into conflict with Belarusian authorities, but the government is afraid of a political organization of the ethnic minorities as civic groups," Tarnauskaite said.

One main problem is the legal status of the Lithuanian schools. There are two secondary schools in Rimdziunai-Gerveciai and in Pelesa, which the Lithuanian state built and has financially supported since the early 1990s. The secondary school in Pelesa is a private school.

"In case of a worsening cooperation with Belarusian authorities, it remains the property of the Lithuanian state," Remigijus Motuzas, director general of the Lithuania's Department for Ethnic Minorities and Lithuanian Diaspora, said. The Belarusian and Lithuanian parts of the Rimdziunai state secondary school were united last year. The Lithuanian and Belarusian governments closely cooperate in the work now.

Graduates of Lithuanian secondary schools in Belarus have at least two options: to study in Belarus or to enter a university in Lithuania.

"This year three graduates from the Lithuanian secondary schools in Belarus will start to study at the Vilnius Pedagogical University and they uttered their wish to return to their hometowns as teachers. They can help to awaken and support Lithuanian culture," Motuzas said.

Beside the two secondary schools, there are several Lithuanian weekend schools and kindergartens in Minsk and in several small towns of Belarus. In the weekend schools young pupils and grown-ups learn about Lithuanian literature, geography, history and music. The teachers of the weekend schools do not get their salary from the Belarusian state, but the Lithuanian government pays for it. Teachers from the weekend school in the town of Lida see no difficulties in the cooperation with local Belarusian authorities.

"We are even allowed to celebrate Lithuanian National holidays," Virginija Tarnauskaite said. "We are very dependent on the good will of local authorities, or nice uncles and aunts and personal contacts." Her statement refers to the current political situation where any law or rule can be created, changed and violated at any time.

The Government of Lithuania gives special assistance to the Lithuanian community in Belarus. The Lithuanian state financed the building of the high school in Pelesa and Rimdziunai, also a hostel for pupils and living houses and teachers' flats . Besides these big investments, the Lithuanian government steadily supplies the schools with books and delivers the Lithuanian press to Belarus. It also provides help for the organization of conferences and cultural events.

Under these circumstances, one is inclined to ask about the Lithuanians attempts to settle in Lithuania.

"Some Lithuanians have a Lithuanian passport besides their Belarusian citizenship and they could take the chance to move to Lithuania, but most of them want to stay in Belarus. The families are sometimes mixed Lithuanian-Belarusian or Lithuanian-Polish, and the non-Lithuanian partner would probably feel foreign in Lithuania," Maryte Sensiukaite from the Department for Ethnic Minorities and Lithuanian Diaspora said.

Lithuanians have been living in Belarus for ages - only the border lines seem to have a historical proclivity to move. They have deep-rooted traditions and their own lifestyle and are willing to keep it, Sensiukaite said.