• November 23, 2021
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The Fate of National Minorities Act

“Common historic road of people of different nationalities living in Lithuania is closely connected with the fate of Lithuanian nation and therefore conditions determine the identity of common goals” – that’s how National Minorities Act of 1989, which for the first time in Lithuanian post-war history regulated rights of non-Lithuanian people, begins.

National Minorities Act was adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania – that is, by makeshift parliament, on November 23, 1989. The legislative act came into force several weeks later, on December 11. Vytautas Astrauskas, former chairman of the Presidium, put his signature on the document. Astrauskas belonged to the reform wing of the communist party. At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of Lithuania, he voted for independence from The Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During his tenure, a number of changes liberalizing the system were introduced. For example, a multi-party was allowed, which consequently resulted in the first free elections in February 1990. “Since the fall of 1988, when Sąjūdis was established, Supreme Council no longer worked like in the soviet times. It gathered more often, creating a series of meetings during which a lot of independence reclaiming decisions were adopted” leading politician of Social Democratic Party of Lithuania, Česlovas Juršėnas, recalled several years ago on the web portal delfi.It

A Right to Inscriptions

The Act provided access to education for representatives of national minorities, as well as information in their native tongue. It allowed for establishing social, ethnic-based organizations. Lithuanian remained as an official language, but in places inhabited closely by national minorities people going to offices can be served “in the language of majority living in the town, if necessary.” The legal act also allowed double inscriptions of streets and towns. At the end of the month, already after January events and declaring independence Supreme Council complemented the law with important amendments, which by the way also allowed double nomenclature. Unfortunately this record, despite the insistence of Warsaw and Polish minorities, never came into force, because it had clashed with Act on national language, which had the rank of constitutional law.

Formally the act expired in 2010. Despite a few attempts, a new one has not been adopted yet. All projects meet with objection from Lithuania’s right political side. “I’d say this idea has a state-breaking trait. Surely not contributing to inhabitants of all nations feeling equal in their country” said the deputy of Homeland Union and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Audronius Ažubalis during the talk with Lithuanian television channel TV3.

Politicians of Farmers and Greens Union are critical towards the idea as well. “Unlike the desire to divide the state and isolate national minorities in separate territories where being locked-up, they would be less likely to integrate with state life, it is hard to explain Ewelina Dobrowolska’s ideas proposed in National Minorities Act” stated on Facebook MP Agnė Širinskienė, who is sometimes called Karbauskis’s right hand. That’s a bit surprising because it was during the Saulius Skvernelis tenure, who held the office as a Prime Minister, a working group was established in 2019, which prepared a project of a new act regulating laws of national minorities in the country. Its work was managed by Ewelina Dobrowolska, present Minister of justice. By the end of July 2020 project was sent to the Ministry of Culture.

When in Parliament?

The new ruling coalition announced that the bill will surely be submitted to the parliament. “I am glad that the 18th Government of the Republic of Lithuania prioritizes national minorities and ordered the Ministry of Justice to end the preparations and refine the Act of National Minorities.  It is therefore probable for the act to be submitted to the deputies by the end of spring session” declared Dobrowolska in February of the current year. For now, though, it is unknown when the act will be discussed by the parliament.

“It’s a shame that as of now, this project, dare I say, has been written off. Although there were a lot of desires, also on Ewelina Dobrowolska’s part. It was a project prepared on the level of different ministries and institutions. Their comments and our desires were taken into consideration. Because Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities ratified by Lithuania is still not carried out, since appropriate acts of internal law have not been adopted. One of such legal acts is to be the National Minorities Act” comments for Kurier Wileński Grzegorz Sakson, president of Polish Lawyers’ Association in Lithuania, who also participated in the preparation of the bill. The project allows for the usage of national minorities’ language in offices on the territory of a local government unit, where minorities make up a minimum of 25% residents. The projects includes entries for original spellings of streets and towns too.

“It means that the law would only give the opportunity, the remaining issues would have to be regulated in other legal acts. We have always underlined for the National Minorities Act to be completed with other legal acts. It is in the first place, and only then the change of other legal acts” proclaims Sakson, adding that the project surely was not submitted to the parliament, because those in charge lack votes for her approval.

Minority Rights, Human Rights

Elżbieta Kuzborska-Pacha, an expert in the field of national minority rights, believes that the rights of national minorities are an integral part of human rights. “National Minorities Act in Lithuania is needed to fill the regulatory gap at the national level in the sphere of human rights protection. I’ll repeat what I’ve been repeating over the years; national minority rights are human rights and just like other human rights – right to assembly, right to freedom of speech, right to freedom of religion, right to a fair trial – have to be regulated and protected by law. In summary, what is not regulated, is non-existent, and is not protected. Putting it another way – please look at the catalog of human rights in the 2nd chapter of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania – I get the impression that only the art. 37: “Citizens belonging to ethnic communities shall have the right to foster their language, culture, and customs,” never saw the full statutory extension. I mean mainly language rights” emphasizes the expert during the talk with us. In her opinion, Lithuania can follow the model of countries of the European Union.

“Lithuania is obligated by international agreements to regulate not only language rights but also participatory rights, enabling effective participation in state’s political and socio-economic life. One of such agreements is especially the Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities, which Lithuania signed and ratified without question. An exemplary inspiration for Lithuanian legal and implementing solutions is the Hungarian Act on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities, widely presented as a model solution ensuring language and participatory rights. In each case, Lithuanian Law on National Minorities is essential in order to develop constitutional protection, as well as implementing Lithuanian international obligations in the field of human rights” added Elżbieta Kuzborska-Pacha.

Translated by Sonia Dados within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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