- July 11, 2012
Girinus: A provocation by Polish woman or an act of civil disobedience?
Several days ago the media reported that Renata Cytacka, the secretary of Administrative Council of Vilinus District, hung a plate with the name of the street written only in Polish.
Cytacka explains that Baliński himself wrote his name as Michał Baliński and she wanted to celebrate his memory this way. Since the plate she ordered is different from the usual street sign in Jaszuny, it should be treated as a house ornament which would mean that no law has been broken
Cytacka pretends not to know what it is all about – after all she only wanted to commemorate a famous historian. Her explanations are not very convincing however, since everything was played out too smartly. The plate is clearly different from ordinary street signs, and thus should be treated differently. But how much should it differ from the original to not be treated as a street sign? If it is acknowledged to be a house ornament, wouldn’t all the neighbours decide to decorate their houses in such a manner – and thus “bare their teeth” towards the government.
What to do? The Administrative Director of the Soleczniki District said that if the name of the street had been written only in a non-state language, a record would be made describing the breach of administrative law.
Perhaps this is the correct thing to do but is it the wisest? If Cytacka is punished then other people living in the are who followed her example should be punished as well. I cannot be ruled out that she is attempting to become a victim of “Lithuanian nationalism” and show Poland, if not the whole European Union, that peaceful members of Polish minority in Lithuania are being discriminated and persecuted.
At the moment, the Polish-Lithuanian conflict has subsided somewhat, The concessions made by Lithuanian government regarding the enforcement of Education Law has robbed Polish radicals of their main arguments. Not much can currently be held agains the “evil” Lithuanians but fining people for hanging their own plates, or making a fuss over street signs can rile up the radicals on both sides. Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania could use the tension before the parliamentary elections – by stressing the persecution by Lithuanian authorities and the lack of understanding it could justify its postulates and mobilize the voters
Until now I considered Cytacka’s actions to be a provocation. But perhaps they can be viewed differently – as a way of drawing attention to the viciousness of the laws and regulations. Why should the government care what plates do people put up on their houses or other private property as long as the writings on them do not incite hatred and violence, and don’t stand out much? Isn’t it high time to abandon persistent ordering and regulating, so emblematic of Soviet times? To restrict the power of the bureaucrats and trust people and their common sense more?
On the other hand, Cytacka hung a plate with a Polish name of the street and not FC Bayern t-shirt or Coca-Cola advert – thus giving her action political overtones. Perhaps it was meant to protest faulty legislation a rudimentary form of civil disobedience? I’d like to remind my readers that civil disobedience is consciously breaking laws without resorting to violence. By risking imprisonment, a person is attempting to draw the attention of the society and government to faulty and inadequate legal norms, hoping that they will be reformed or abolished. Perhaps the most famous examples of civil disobedience were the protests of black citizens of USA against the laws preventing them from stting next to whites in the public transport, or travelling at the front of buses.
Far be it from me to equate Cytacka with civil rights defenders from the USA; or the State Language Law with racist regulations the breaking of which was punished by imprisonment rather than a simple fine. Nonetheless it is worth considering whether the regulations on street signs have valid reasons for exsting, rather than being nothing but holdovers from the times of nationalism.
Between the wars similar regulations were widespread in Central-Eastern Europe. Even Czechoslovakia, considered the most liberal and democratic countries of the region, passed a number of laws discriminating against the German and Hungarian minorities. In many settlements the post was delivered only when Czech addresses were used. In Prague a telegram could be sent only in Czech, and it was the only language to deal with telecommunications company. There were similar regulations in Poland.
Such regulations are not accidental. They came from the conviction that the country “belongs” to its base population (Poland – to Poles, Czechoslovakia to Czechs and Slovaks, Hungary to the Hungarians), that these nations were for a long time oppressed and discriminated against, and that oppressive and discriminatory regulations regarding the minorities were a way of evening out the score. Additionally it was a way to remind once privileged nations that their reign is over and new rulers have arisen.
This perception of a nation is not in accordance with democratic principles. The Polish have not ruled in Lithuania for a long time now and they are not a threat to Lithuanian language and culture. Lithuanian identity will not suffer and the dignity of national language will not suffer if the street signs are in Polish.
It is unrealistic to expect that language laws will be amended any time soon. What then to do about Cytacka? I think it would be best to leave her alone and turn a blind eye to her provocation. But wouldn’t that mean turning a blind eye to breaking the law? Yes and no. Not all regulations are applied equally since not all of them are equally important. Moreover, the circumstances and conditions in which the breach of the law occurred can vary greatly. It’s good that police is not quick to punish every breach of traffic laws, for example when a pedestrian ignores the traffic lights on an empty street. It would be different if the pedestrian crossed the street during the rush hours on an important intersection and created a danger for themselves and the drivers trying to avoid a collision. It is worth reminding that is easy to make oneself look ridiculous by too hastily enforcing the law, which we had a sample of lately when a legal proceeding was started against respected long-time political veterans for illegally holding a meeting.
Nobody forbids the government and the law enforcement to apply the law wisely. Let Cytacka rejoice at her own creativity and her new house ornament. It’s not the end of the world, even if her neighbours follow suit. It’s high time to abandon the legislations based on distrust towards other nations and the rigidity of one’s own culture.
Tłumaczenie Andrzej Rola w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Andrzej Rola within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.