- July 24, 2023
Removal of bilingual signs in villages Bieliškės and Ozhulovka is against the law and lacks justification.
Years-long dispute over Polish signs in the Vilnius Region came back when in May the National Language Inspectorate (lit. Valstybinė kalbos inspekcija), invoking the protection of the Lithuanian language, demanded from the Vilnius District Municipality the removal of two decorative Polish-Lithuanian signs with the names of two villages, Bieliškės and Ozhulovka. In Ozhulovka it was an ornamental, hand-carved, wooden sign with the village’s name and in Bieliškės, a small sign on private property. The measure was supported by conservatives, such as Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) who adopted a resolution on bilingual boards in the Vilnius region.
In their paper, the National Language Inspectorate ordered the mayor – Robert Duchniewicz – to remove the signs and pointed out that they are against an act which states “national language applies to all seals, stamps, document forms, signs, office spaces, and other inscriptions of Lithuanian businesses, institutions and organisations, as well as names and descriptions of Lithuanian products and services.”
This warrant issued by the National Language Inspectorate was challenged by the region’s administration and reported to the Administrative Disputes Commission. This was in accordance with the provisions of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Ümogramtas Paceviczius, the government’s representative, asserted that “the Constitution also guarantees the preservation of national identity” to national minorities outside the Convention.
The Lithuanian Administrative Disputes Commission granted the government’s appeal, pointing out that the National Language Inspectorate did not engage the mayor in the investigation of a possible violation of law, did not provide an objective procedure for law violation and the right to good administration, which requires conducting an objective and unbiased investigation procedure, as well as explaining all crucial circumstances of this matter, and hearing from the people affected by the decision. In the light of the circumstances above the Lithuanian Administrative Disputes Commission decided to lift the National Language Inspectorate decision, claiming it as unlawful and unjustified.
This decision does not solve the dispute which was still present within the matter of the signs. This is for example due to the statement by the National Language Inspectorate’s president Andrius Volatka:
“This is Lithuania. Polish place names are not permitted here because Lithuanian law is in effect. That’s all. (…) In Lithuania, only Lithuanian place names are permitted. It is governed by state language law, which is common throughout the world. […] – Would the Lithuanian people wish to inscribe Polish characters on Polish-occupied territory? And you call those traditional inscriptions? I disagree. (…) What does it matter if they want it (the people in the Vilnius region – ed.)? Russians do not want Ukrainian inscriptions in Donbas; they desire Russian ones. There was a significant Polonization of Lithuanians in that occupied area. Polish inscriptions would face strong opposition.”
Such a statement from the president of the National Language Inspectorate met with the mayor’s reaction, who turned to the Minister of Culture Simonas Kairis and the president of the Commission of the Lithuanian Language Violeta Meiliūnaitė with a complaint against said words (supporting the mayor was i.a. the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Lithuania Konstanty Radziwiłł.) According to Duchniewicz, Valotka’s words incite national discord and the chief of the National Language Inspectorate compared the Vilvius Region to the Donbas occupied by pro-Russian separatists: “Audrius Volatka spoke about the areas of our county using phrases like ‘a distinct Polish-occupied zone’ and ‘it is an occupied zone where there was a rapid Polonization of Lithuanians.”
Duchniewicz also stressed the significance of cultural ties and the development of cooperation with minorities:
“National minorities have been an integral part of our society, connected historically and culturally with Lithuania for a long time. Around 16 per cent of our society consists of different national minorities, the biggest one being Poles. Other minorities include Russians, Belarusians, Jews, Ukrainians, and other nationalities. All of them brought a lot to the Lithuanian nation, its culture and prosperity. That is why we need to make sure they do not feel marginalised, alienated, and in this case, conflicted with Lithuanians. Instead, we need to make sure they feel full-fledged participants in public life and creators of the country.”
The European Foundation of Human Rights receives with regret and concern the words of the president of the National Language Inspectorate. He publicly deprecates Lithuanian residents and stigmatizes the Polish community in our country. It is worth noting that bilingual signs do not threaten the Lithuanian language, the Vilnius Region and Lithuania. It is the opposite – they symbolise diversity, solidarity and respect. Comparing the desire to support the language and culture of a national community to the actions of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas is inappropriate, humiliating, and may lead to the incitement of hatred on ethnic and national grounds. We call for respect and appreciation for our community’s diversity and call for the promotion of harmony and understanding among nations.
In Lithuania, the matter of bilingual inscriptions in places mostly inhabited by a national minority – in the case of the Vilnius Region it is Poles – has not been regulated by law. The chief of the National Language Inspectorate Audrius Valotka argues that under The Law on the State Language in Lithuania, place names are allowed in Lithuanian only. Constitutionally, Lithuanian is the only official language. After the abolition of the Law on Ethnic Minorities in 2010, bilingual road signs became de facto illegal.
In the area surrounding the capital, where most people speak Polish, local councillors as well as ordinary citizens started placing Polish-Lithuanian road signs on private housing, claiming that private properties are exempt from language legislation (moreover the signs themselves serve a decorative function, and not an administrative-informative one). The main cause of this dispute is the lack of specific legal regulations. The government is still searching for a compromise, which could satisfy the Polish community and at the same time be faithful to the proclaimed policy of monolingualism.
In the heat of the discussion, it is worth mentioning that Lithuania is bound by international law. This includes i.a. the signed Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The convention, in Article 11(3), obliges state parties to include traditional local names, street names and other topographical indicators in public matters, in the language of the minority. The Council of Europe has been reminding for years that using the languages of minorities on official signs is a promotional measure. This has a significant positive impact on the prestige and social awareness of the minority language. This matter is supported by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which, in recent years, has adopted several recommendations urging states to use minority languages on public signs. This is why The Council of Europe deplores the removal of signs in the languages of minorities in acts of vandalism or in accordance with formal decisions aiming at restriction in the presence of the languages of minorities in society and calls all applicable public authorities in all State Parties to apply the terms of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML).
It should be reminded that signage in multilingual place names is not a recent discovery – they were already used throughout the 20th century. However, it is worth admitting that their presence was the aftermath of residents’ actions and wasn’t necessarily regulated by law. In the post-war period, some communist countries, such as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Romania, and Hungary, also allowed bilingual nomenclature within their territories.
How is the situation in EU countries now? A few examples will be presented below.
In Poland, the matter of bilingual nomenclature has been regulated by the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities and on Regional Languages, which was passed in 2005.
In accordance with the act, geographical nomenclature can be implemented in languages spoken by minorities or people who speak a regional language. Bilingual nomenclature can only be introduced in languages recognized by the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities (national minorities: Belarusian, Czech, Lithuanian, German, Armenian, Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and Jewish; ethnic minorities: Karaim, Lemko, Romani, and Tatar). Additionally, it can be used in the regional language (Kashubian).
Names of unpopulated places, streets, squares, etc. in minority languages may be established only in municipalities where the minority in whose language the name is to be established constitutes at least 20% of the population. In the case of populated places, minority names may also be established in municipalities that do not meet the quantitative requirement of minority residents. For such places, there is a possibility of implementing an additional name provided that the consultation results in favour of such a name by more than 50% of residents, rules and conduction of which is determined by the municipal council.
As of April 9, 2019, additional names in national minorities’ languages were established for 1252 localities and their parts in 60 communes – 827 Kashubian names, 359 German names, 30 Lithuanian names, 27 Belarusian names, and 9 Lemko names.
In Austria, bilingual signs are commonly found in the Carinthia region, which is heavily populated by the Slovenian minority. The right to use bilingual signs was guaranteed to minorities by the Treaty for the Re-establishment of an Independent and Democratic Austria in 1955. They were confirmed by the 1976 Law on National Minorities (Volksgruppengesetz).
This law was also confirmed and specified in rule no. G-213/01, V-62/01 and B-2075/99 of the Constitutional Court of Austria on December 13, 2001, when the Court stated, among other things, that placing bilingual signs with street or place names is possible when at least 10% of the residents in a given municipality use national minorities’ languages. Previously, the law required at least 25%. The Court also indicated that the same font size should be used when designing the signs, not to favour any groups.
The law recognises the following Austrian national minorities: Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians, as well as Roma and Sinti.
In Croatia, bilingual topographical signs are being placed despite the bloody Balkan war of the 90s, mainly due to ethnic conflicts. Nowadays, Croatia’s most significant minority is Serbs (around 4,5% of the population). The Constitution of Croatia guarantees minorities respect for their rights and the Law on the Use of the Language and Writing of National Minorities grants minorities the right to establish bilingual topographic tables.
Estonia, next to Latvia and Luxembourg, has the biggest population of other national minorities in the EU. Nearly a fourth of all Estonian residents are ethnic Russians. Other national minorities include Germans, Swedes and Jews.
The Constitution of Estonia from 1992 directly addresses in a few articles the national minorities and their rights, guaranteeing i.a. the right to maintain a national identity, education in the minorities’ language or being able to communicate in official business in the minority’s language in municipal offices, where at least half of the residents are of a different nationality than Estonian.
In 2003 Estonia passed an act concerning place nomenclature which presented a more liberal legal resolution. A principle was maintained, according to which topographic names should be written in the Estonian language. However, there can be exceptions motivated by historical or cultural aspects. To establish bilingual signs, the local government must seek approval from the Minister for Regional Affairs, who, in turn, seeks the opinion of the Council for Place Names.
The Estonian law allows for the usage of bilingual signs when they refer to the names of places, streets, neighbourhoods and city districts. Such signs appear in Russian and Swedish.
Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – are known for their particular sensitivity towards the rights of minorities, national and ethnical. In recent years these countries have intensified their efforts to fully implement the right to use minorities’ language.
In South Jutland County in Denmark, the German language has the status of a language of minority. Due to Danish-dependent territories, the Faroese and Greenlandic languages also have the status of minority languages. Signs with place names occur in all of those languages.
In Finland, the Swedish language has the status of being official, even though there are only 6% of ethnic Swedes living there. Lappish languages have the status of regional, official languages in the north part of Finland, but also in Norway and Sweden. Additionally, the status of a minority language has the Meänkieli and the Kven language in Sweden and Norway respectively. All of those languages are used on topographical signs.
Germany, similarly to the Nordic countries and Austria, is largely populated by immigrants from around the world. However, the right to use bilingual signs, which is obligated to be introduced according to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, applies only to officially recognized national or ethnic minorities.
In practice, in Germany, one can see signs with street names in Danish (Schleswig-Holstein), Frisian (Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony), Low German/Low Saxon (in many regions), Upper Sorbian (Saxony), Lower Sorbian (Brandenburg). Romani language (Hesse) has also been granted minority status.
Slovenia recognises Hungarians and Italians as national minorities. Romani people have special legal status. The Slovenian Constitution directly refers to these minorities (Articles 5, 64, 80), granting them broad rights. The most significant for the purpose of this analysis is Article 11, which states that the official language of Slovenia is Slovenian. However, in municipalities traditionally inhabited by Italian or Hungarian minorities, their languages also gain official status. This also applies to bilingual topographic signs.
Moreover, in some parts of Slovenia – where there are other official languages besides Slovenian (Italian in some parts of Slovenia’s Istra and Hungarian in some parts of Prekmurje) – by law, it is required for all official signs (including road signs) to be in both official languages.
In Slovakia, nearly 80% of the population declares Slovakian nationality, and around 8,5% – Hungarian. Among the other ethnic groups, Romani people are the most numerous (approximately 2%).
Slovak legislation does not explicitly define the groups that are considered national minorities. However, in the reports of the Slovakian government concerning the implementation of the Framework Convention, there are listed 11 minorities: Hungarians, Romani people, Czechs, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Germans, Morovians/Silesians, Croats, Jews, Poles and Bulgarians.
Slovakia implemented a liberal bilingual topographical sign solution in the 90s. In order to adopt bilingual signs with street or place names, only 20% of residents must declare themselves to be members of a national minority. The exception is only for place names derived from the surnames of distinguished Slovaks – these may only be written in Slovakian.
These examples from different countries in the EU show that national minorities’ rights are important to member countries. Many of them show engagement, allowing bilingual topographical signs in regions populated by minorities. These signs have a significant symbolic meaning for minorities, demonstrating respect for their traditions and language.
Even France, the only country in the EU that did not sign the Framework Convention, still grants numerous rights to minorities living on its territory. This includes allowing bilingual signs. In the last 25 years, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc have also made significant progress in protecting national minorities’ rights. They implemented liberal regulations into their legal systems, which allowed minorities various privileges. An example is Estonia, where the numerous Russian minority has the right to use topographical signs in their native language. This proves to show that with sufficient engagement, the government is capable of finding legal solutions acceptable to all.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, emulating Western countries, have set themselves the goal of providing special care for national minorities. One of the easiest ways of showing respect to minorities is by allowing them to use topographical nomenclature in their native languages. It is worth remembering that such bilingual nomenclature has been around for centuries in areas populated by minorities. They should not be treated as a special privilege granted to a select group. Instead, they should be treated as a natural duty of the country to its people, who use a different language.
The Council of Europe, as mentioned before, has repeatedly urged Lithuania to take stronger actions aimed at implementing the provisions of the Framework Convention, especially the still unresolved issue of bilingual signs with street names. As a full-fledged member of the Western community, Lithuania must respect national minorities’ rights. In the European Union, it is already a standard to use bilingual signs. This is a sign of protection and respect for linguistic and cultural diversity in society.
Translated by Katarzyna Dudzik within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.