Unlikely alliance speaks out for minority schools

11th May 2012 at 01:00
Marginal groups in Lithuania are angry about language laws affecting education

In any other European country, the idea of Poles and Russians making common cause on the streets would raise eyebrows. The history of distrust between the two countries is a long and unpleasant one.

But not so in Lithuania. An unlikely pairing was forged last year when the government passed a law extending the teaching of subjects in the Lithuanian language to minority Polish, Russian and Belarusian schools and introduced a measure that would see children from minorities take exams in Lithuanian. The right to be taught in your mother tongue is long-cherished in this former outpost of the Soviet Union. As such, these minorities view the changes as highly discriminatory.

For centuries, the borders between Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia have expanded and withdrawn many times. And from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Poland and Lithuania were effectively the same nation, conjoined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Even now, a native Vilnius cab driver will talk to customers in Polish. But in Russian, never.

Of the three Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - the Russian language may be the least welcome in Lithuania, where the indigenous population far outnumbers the minorities. By contrast, in Latvia's capital, Riga, Russian speakers evenly match those of Latvians. The hostility towards Russian in Lithuania owes much to its domination by the Soviet Union before and after the Second World War.

Poland, too, has issues with the Big Bear to the east, due to years of conquest and post-war Communist domination - one reason why the sight of thousands of protesters from Lithuania's minorities marching together was so novel - not least because, alongside banners in Polish, there were some in Russian. Those on the rally platform outside parliament spoke in various languages, including Lithuanian, and drew applause from all sections of the crowd. In a seeming show of conciliation, many held small Lithuanian tricolour flags, in among a wave of Polish red and white.

As with other countries, it is never pleasant when school matters become the source of nationalistic spite. Indeed, ahead of the demonstration in March, fears were stoked in the media that far-Right elements from Poland were being bussed into Lithuania to cause trouble. In turn, Lithuanian extremists held protests at the Polish embassy in Vilnius, demanding that their minority in Poland be accorded the same rights "enjoyed" by Poles in Lithuania.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, nationalism has been unleashed in the former Communist countries of Europe. While some try to build bridges, others are ever ready to tear them down. And on occasion, schooling gets caught up in these tensions.

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