• July 7, 2023
  • 150

Robert Duchniewicz: ‘The plaques are more decorative than informative’

In the Vilnius region, a dispute over the double naming of villages has once again arisen. The State Commission of the Lithuanian Language demands that the local government administration remove Polish place names. The local government disagrees with the demands.

In May, the local government administration received an order from the State Commission to remove the Polish equivalents of the names of two places, Orzełówka (Ažulaukė) and Bieliszek (Bieliškės). According to the commission, the place names can only function in the state language.

Cultivation of the mother tongue

The local government does not agree that the plaques should be removed. It has referred the matter to the Lithuanian Administrative Disputes Commission, which is due to consider it on 18 July. Last week, the mayor of the region, Robert Duchniewicz, met with the president of the State Commission of the Lithuanian Language, Dr Violeta Meiliūnaite. At the meeting, the issue of double inscriptions of topographical names was raised.

“We do not agree with such a recommendation. Indeed, there is a lack of clear legal regulations. However, as I have already mentioned, the self-government of the Vilnius region, unlike other self-governments in Lithuania, is exceptionally densely populated by people who consider themselves to be of Polish nationality. The Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania guarantees the right of citizens belonging to national minorities to cultivate their language, culture and customs. Therefore, we, as representatives of these residents and observers of the Constitution of Lithuania, must appreciate this and provide them with an opportunity to cultivate our language and customs.” This is how the mayor commented on the demand of the State Commission of the Lithuanian Language at the time.

The advisor to the mayor of the Vilnius region, Kęstutis Butvydas, in an interview with BNS, stated that there is a large number of representatives of national minorities living in the mentioned settlements, therefore there is a need for topographical names to be written not only in the state language. “Besides, Article 11 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities restores such a possibility,” the advisor stated.

In fact, in para. 3 of Article 11 of the Convention states: “In areas traditionally inhabited by substantial numbers of persons belonging to a national minority, the Parties shall endeavour, in the framework of their legal system, including, where appropriate, agreements with other States, and taking into account their specific conditions, to display traditional local names, street names and other topographical indications intended for the public also in the minority language when there is a sufficient demand for such indications.”

Legal nihilism?

The President of the State Commission of the Lithuanian Language, Audrius Valotka, called the local government’s actions “legal nihilism”. “Quite recently there was a precedent. When Mrs Maria Rekść was mayor, we received a complaint that there was a Polish inscription at Lavoryszki. We ordered this inscription to be removed, but the administration of the Vilnius district took us to court and lost in all instances. Now, in an identical case, they do not want to remove the inscription,” the official commented to BNS. At the end of March, the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania upheld the inspectorate’s request. “In this case, examining the form of the inscription, the Court agreed with the conclusions of the State Commission of the Lithuanian Language that the inscription in Polish is public information informing about the boundaries of the Lavoryski municipality. It follows that the board in Polish is public information and therefore the State Language Policy is to be applied to it, where it is stated that all public inscriptions must be written in the state language,” reads the justification.

Valotka stated that, in the case of topographical names, the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, although ratified by Lithuania, does not apply, as the relevant legislative amendments that would allow the use of a language other than the state language in public names have not yet been introduced.

A few years ago, there was a high-profile case where the courts fined local authorities for double street names. In March 2014, a way out of the situation was partially found. Still, street names can only be officially written in Lithuanian, but according to the regulation of the Minister of the Interior, a street name post placed on land belonging to the local government is considered the official street inscription. Street inscription plaques on houses are not considered official inscriptions, so they can also be bilingual. For place names, there is still no such solution.

Mayor’s comment 

Robert Duchniewicz, not looking at the earlier court decision, believes that the case can now be won.

“The court’s decision from March did not seem logical. In my opinion, everything is based on the fact that in Lithuania there is no appropriate legal regulation, for example, the Law on National Minorities. In the case of Ławaryszek, there was a plaque carved from a tree by the district administration. As far as I understand the court’s logic, if such a plaque had been placed on private property, then there would have been no violation of the law. In my opinion, this plaque was not a road sign or signpost of any kind, so it did not fall under any law. Besides, the inscription in Polish was the same size as the Lithuanian one. In my opinion, there was a lack of legal arguments on the part of the local government. When we received the same decision regarding the plaque in Orzełówka, I thought it was worth taking a more serious look at the matter. To draw the attention of the central authority to this problem as well,” he comments to the ‘Kurier Wileński’. The mayor informed that the local government has now hired lawyers.

The case is different, according to the mayor, in Bieliszki.

“As far as I can see, the iron plaque there is located on private land. If it is in fact located on private land, the question then arises as to whether any inspector has the right to demand anything in this regard? It is precisely the lack of proper regulation that leads to this type of conflict. In my opinion, these plaques are more decorative than informative. Let us remember how many such decorative boards were hung by the mayor Remigijus Šimašius in Vilnius. We have now taken the matter to a committee (the Lithuanian Administrative Disputes Commission) and, depending on its decision, we do not rule out challenging it in court,’ explains Robert Duchniewicz.

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

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