• July 25, 2023
  • 79

For the time being, bilingual signs remain, but it is only the beginning.

A scandal broke after chauvinistic remarks by the President of Państwowa Inspekcja Językowa (Valstybinė kalbos inspekcija). The words of the inspector were met with criticism. A special commission of the ministry will investigate, and the order of removing the bilingual signs was cancelled. But it is only the beginning of the storm.

A firestorm after Valotka’s words. The Ministry, lawyers and Poland react.

The words of the President of Państwowa Inspekcja Językowa (Valstybinė kalbos inspekcija) Audrius Valotka caused a wide public reaction. The position has already been voiced by the Ambassador of Poland in Vilnius, Konstanty Radziwiłł, as well as Member of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, the non-attached member Beata Pietkiewicz and Rita Tamašunienė from Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance. 

The media (including those in Poland) quote a statement by the Forum Wileńskie. In the background, Komisja Sporów Administracyjnych cancelled the VKI order as legally unjustified. Thus, it remains to wait for the position of the authority.

Comment by Beata Pietkiewicz, Member of Parliament

We asked the Member of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Beata Pietkiewicz to comment on these statements. She pointed out that such statements could be perceived as harmful to national security, especially in the current geopolitical situation. 

“One can reflect on it, because for more than 30 years we have been living in a free nation and even after signing the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and ratifying it, which Lithuania would have to follow, we are still at zero point. These kinds of statements are not only discriminatory, but also stir up national feuds, which should be avoided especially in such a geopolitical situation and cannot be looked at through the fingers.” Beata Pietkiewicz pointed out in an interview with the “Kurier Wileński”.

Forum Wileńskie reacts

An organisation of socially active Poles, Forum Wileńskie, has reacted to the scandalous words of Audrius Valotka. The statement reads that such actions are working for Russia, even unconsciously.

“It saddens and outrages that there are still people among the officials of the Republic of Lithuania who participate in this process of dividing nations – perhaps without even knowing it themselves,” reads the statement sent to the editorial office.

It is this fragment that is most often quoted in the media in Poland. The statement was signed by the President of the Forum Wileńskie, Jarosław Wolkonowski and Forum activist, MP Beata Pietkiewicz. 

 “We believe that such statements by a government official cannot remain without consequences. Lithuania, as a country that has always been a multicultural country and whose national minorities, together with Lithuanians, suffered painfully during the Second World War, cannot resort to chauvinistic politics” the statement reads.

Statement by Ambassador Konstanty Radziwiłł

The Ambassador of Poland in Lithuania, Konstanty Radziwill, also reacted to the outrageous statements. He pointed out that he had proposed Audrius Valotka to discuss the issue, but his proposal went unanswered.

“In my opinion, the use of language in which entire national groups are stigmatised and inaccurate and antagonistic theses about the past are invoked, corresponds more to the canons of historiography and propaganda of totalitarian regimes, from which Poland and Lithuania suffered so much in the 20th century, than to the standards of democratic states and friendly societies.” reads the statement of the Ambassador of Poland in Lithuania, Konstanty Radziwill. 

“I find it particularly offensive to compare the situation in the Vilnius region to that in eastern Ukraine and to attach alleged separatist tendencies to the people of this part of Lithuania. This is extremely inappropriate at a time when the people of Poland and Lithuania, including the Polish minority in Lithuania, are unequivocally on the side of Ukraine in the war caused by Russia’s aggression”  the ambassador stated.

Culture Minister: “inappropriate statements”

The head of the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, Simonas Kairys, announced that he had signed a resolution to set up a commission to investigate the words of Audrius Valotka. One can therefore conclude that from the co-governing Liberals’ Movement, of which the minister is a member, Valotka is unlikely to get support. “The head of the inspection has long been unclear whether he is talking to his friends at the kitchen table or on air. But his recent statements are, to put it mildly, not only inappropriate, but also raise serious doubts as to whether they are in line with the duties and responsibilities of a government official, the head of a state institution,” Kairys wrote as recently on Friday on his Facebook profile.

Earlier Duchnevič had asked for a commission

Creating such a commission by the Ministry of Culture, to which the VKI subordinates, is in a way a response to a letter from the Mayor of the Vilnius region, Robert Duchnevič, who asked the ministry to investigate Valotka’s words. 

“Audrius Valotka’s comparisons can be understood by our society and the society of the Polish state that Poles are not partners and allies of our country, either in international or domestic relations, but on the contrary, they are enemies of our country. The words of the head of the inspection discredit Lithuania’s relations with Poland, which is a partner of our country, especially now that it supports Ukraine in its war against the aggressor, Russia.”  Duchnevič noted in the region’s statement.

EFHR does not remain in debt

In this case, we also got a reaction from the European Foundation of Human Rights (EFHR), which has done a lot, for example, on the issue of the original spelling of names. The Foundation draws attention in particular to legal issues. What is more, EFHR cites as examples countries, including Poland, where bilingual and multilingual signs are under national protection. 

“As of 9th April 2019, additional names in the national minority language have been established for 1,252 localities and parts of localities in 60 municipalities (in Poland – editor’s note) – 827 Kashubian names, 359 German names, 30 Lithuanian names, 27 Belorussian names and nine Lemko names.’’ the foundation points out. To the knowledge of the editorial staff of “Kurier Wileński”, there are even more Lithuanian signs, if one counts those on private properties, including tourist resorts in Sejny.

The Foundation also recalls state protection of such signs (along with minority languages) in Austria, Croatia, Estonia, the Nordic countries, Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia. The editorial office of “Kurier Wileński” has previously recalled examples in Catalonia, Italy, the Basque Country and Brittany in France. This means that the president of VKI on LTR either lied that the prohibition on bilingual signs is a “common practice” in Europe, or showed extreme ignorance, if he spread such information unaware of its incorrectness.

Conservatives wrote, but did not understand

The Vilnius region department of the ruling party Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, released a statement defending Valotka. The politicians also suggested that the prohibition of the signs was a kind of “revenge” for the earlier “lack of attention to the educational, cultural and social needs of Lithuanians in the Vilnius and Šalčininkai regions”.

However, the statement shows an extreme misunderstanding of the situation. It is very possible that the politicians sided with the inspector out of loyalty to a government official, rather than out of reason, because the arguments mentioned in the document do not answer the questions on the subject. For example, we read that the Lithuanian language must appear on the signs so that all residents are able to understand their meaning. However, this does not answer the question of why the signs have to be exclusively in Lithuanian, because, as has been noted more than once and admitted by Valotka himself after the programme, the signs in question are bilingual, the minority language is under the inscription in Lithuanian.

Anyway, due to the linguistic mistakes in the Conservatives’ statement, we do not take it seriously and will not pay any more attention to it. However, it is indicative of the position we can expect from the ruling party.

What is coming next in case of the signs?

It seems that all indications are that the conflict will not be resolved until the Lithuanian government shows its position on the issue by reacting positively or negatively to Valotka’s words. The ruling coalition, for the time being, will not be very helpful – the Liberals are rather inclined to disapprove of Valotka’s words (the Minister of Culture, who disapproved of Valotka’s words, is a Liberal). The Freedom Party, too, one can assume, will not be in favour of the inspector. In this coalition, however, the Conservatives have the deciding vote. As of the closing of this issue of the newspaper, their top politicians, including Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, have not yet stated their position.

Meanwhile, Komisja Sporów Administracyjnych, approached by the mayor of the Vilnius region, Robert Duchnevič, has cancelled Państwowa Inspekcja Językowa order to remove the bilingual village signs. “Państwowa Inspekcja Językowa, by failing to involve the mayor in the investigation of a possible violation of the law, failed to ensure an objective procedure for investigating the violation of the law and violated the principle of good administration, which obliges it to conduct the investigation in an impartial and objective manner, to clarify all the circumstances relevant to the case and to hear the persons to whom administrative decisions are issued.”

The Commission pointed out that its decision could be appealed to Sąd Administracyjny within one month and recalled that the parties could also come to an agreement during this time.

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

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