Nearly 5,000 students and parents protested on Friday, September 2nd, in front of the Presidential Palace in Vilnius against the discriminatory provisions in the Education Act. So many thousands of protesters sparked an international resonance, which shook the capital of Lithuania, as evidenced by the Sunday’s unscheduled visit of the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Lithuania. As it happened in the past, in the Września city near Poznań city, people strike in order to defend their native language.
Meanwhile, Radosław Sikorski, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, personally telephoned Waldemar Tomaszewski MEP on Friday, the Chairman of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, and assured him that the Polish stand concerning the need to meet the legitimate demands of minorities enshrined in the Polish-Lithuanian Treaty remains unchanged.
Signs of consolidation and determination
The pupils and parents from the Polish schools in Lithuania, pushed to the edge, went on strike on August 31st, which was a continuation of the strike held before in the front of the Presidential Palace.
Mass demonstration, a grass roots initiative, was an expression of the consolidation of Polish society, its resolve and determination to defend the rights till the victorious end. Polish minority supported the protest and declared its solidarity with the representatives of Belarusian, Russian and Lithuanian trade union educators. At the rally the speakers used Polish, Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian. No matter what the language, all speakers agreed that the Act is ill-considered, taken by the authorities without any discussion with the persons it concerns and has the same, overtly discriminatory, character that worsens the situation of the minority schools in Lithuania, thus upsetting the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Authorities remain indifferent
Dariusz Żybort, a representative of the strike committee, insisted in his emotional speech that such drastic measures as the strike were undertaken because “the situation could not be tolerated any longer”. In his opinion, not only the schools of national minorities are threatened, but also the health of students, who have more difficulties because of the introduced uniformity of the levels of the Lithuanian language maturity exam. He was seconded by Albert Narwojsz, the coordinator of the strike committees, who in turn underlined the complete ignorance of the Lithuanian authorities, who have remained indifferent to the protests and 60,000 signatures collected in record time. “The authorities thus demonstrated their attitude towards the citizens of Lithuania of the non-Lithuanian origin, trying to force us into the feeling of happiness – said Narwojsz. “We will not give in,” he spoke with a conviction, and the crowd picked up his words and their loud echo bounced from the white and silent walls of the Presidential Palace.
The President of EAPL, MEP Waldemar Tomaszewski, who “was greeted as a national hero” by the rally participants, which was stressed even by the alfa.lt Lithuanian website, drew attention to the anti-national policy pursued by the ruling coalition, led by conservatives. “No one can intimidate us. We live in the twenty-first century and we will fight for our rights,” firmly said Tomaszewski. “In this protest action 5 thousand. people are involved, and if it will be necessary, we will assemble even 10 thousand. He stated also that he takes part in the rally both as a parent and politician. He reinded that Vytautas Landsbergis, tried to push through the discriminatory act already in 2003, but failed, because other political forces were in power, but now the ideological leader of the Conservatives achieved his goal.
EAPL leader also stressed that the Education Act was adopted under the pressure from certain political circles, as confirmed by the Minister of Education Gintaras Steponavičius in his letter to parents and children. “We can see with the naked eye that it is a political decision, and we will fight it by political means,” said Tomaszewski, who ended his speech saying the words of “Rota”, Polish national poem. “We won’t let our speech be buried,” picked up and loudly chanted the protesters, who enthusiastically accepted the MEP’s speech.
Ella Kanaite, the President of the Association of Schools of Russian in Lithuania, drew attention to the false explanation of the ruling party that supposedly all Baltic countries apply the same mode of teaching and said that in Estonia the Education Act is more liberal. “Could it be that 5% of Russians and 6% of Poles constitutes a threat to the Lithuania’s statehood?”, she asked rhetorically.
MEP Michal Mackiewicz, the President of the Union of Poles in Lithuania, said that the authorities prefer to trying to halt the emigration and “brain drain” directed abroad choosing an easier, but not so different way, namely to seek enemies in their own country. His colleagues from the MP bench – Jarosław Narkiewicz and Leonard Talmont – also emphasized the discriminatory character of the act and the reluctance of the Lithuanian authorities to listen to the representatives of national minorities and to enter into a dialogue.
John Mincewicz, vicemer of the Vilnius region, rejoiced that the Poles united in the face of danger, and their sense of national identity increased. “Your cause is just and will definitely win, because we always feel the support of the Mighty One,” said with conviction the vicemer, who invited all people to the Mass for Polish schools in Lithuania. It was celebrated in the Chapel of Gate of Dawn immediately after the rally, which was one of the largest demonstrations of Polish society in the last two decades.
Drama of students and teachers
The strike and the rally aroused wide media interest, not only domestic but also foreign. Admittedly, Lithuanian journalists were in such shock that they did not even dare to give the exact number of protesters, lowering it a few times, not to mention the objective relation of the idea and the course of the protest.
The protest of students from Polish schools was widely covered in Poland. The protest of the pupils, parents and teachers, who demanded to cancel the controversial Education Act, was supported by the Polish Teachers Association, which issued an appropriate statement. It states that “this is the problem for thousands of students who spoke till this day Polish and Russian at home and at school. For the students who took exams in this languages. The changes in teaching are also a tragedy for the dozens of Polish and Russian teachers, who may lose their jobs in any moment. ” The Association announced that it will attempt to interest the Committee of International Education with the case of Lithuanian schools, hoping to get a reply from its authorities. The PNA wants to show at the meeting of the Round Table of Educational Countries of Central and Eastern Europe, ETUC (European Trade Union Committee for Education and Science) in Kiev a documentary filmed in Lithuania titled “We deluded ourselves that we are free…”. It shows the situation of the teachers in the minority schools in Lithuania.
Inadequate government decisions
The Association “Polish Community” expressed the opinion that the Lithuanian authorities actions that worsen the situation of the Polish minority in Lithuania are inappropriate in the light of existing EU rules.
“The school strike in Lithuania is an expression of serious and real concerns of the students and their parents about the future of Polish education in Lithuania, about the future of the Polish language in the Lithuanian education system, and finally about the future of the Polish minority in this country,” reads the statement of “Polish Community”, signed by Longin Komołowski, the President of the Association.
“The systematic reduction of the rank of Polish language teaching, as well as the reduction of the number of Polish schools, suggests that these fears are not groundless,” reads further the statement.
According to the Association, “past experiences show that the government policy towards the Polish minority in Lithuania is consistently reluctant and despite repeated assurances and promises leads to the restriction of the rights earlier acquired by the Poles in Lithuania.”
Recognizing that the interference in internal affairs of another country is unacceptable, “Polish Community” emphasizes that “in the light of the rules adopted by the countries of the European Union, all actions of authorities that worsen the situation of the Polish minority are inappropriate, and such actions include favoritism of Lithuanian schools at the expense of the minority schools.”
Hope for a dialogue
“I hope that all Lithuanian politicians have heard that the Polish-Lithuanian relations will be as good as the government’s relations with the Polish minority in Lithuania,” announced on Monday Radosław Sikorski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, commenting on the Sunday visit of the Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Lithuania.
Sikorski stressed that the most important thing is “for the Lithuanian authorities to establish a dialogue with our minority, in order for Lithuania to be known as a country that respects the rights of minorities.”
Protest organizers say that now everything depends on the goodwill of the Lithuanian authorities, on their readiness to engage in the dialogue and to listen to the national minorities. If the authorities will not want to enter into the dialogue and will continue their so-called “bulldozer policy”, the strike will be resumed.