The Polish national minority in Lithuania: three reports later.

By Ala Sabanovic | 3 January 2012

To quote this document: Ala Sabanovic, “The Polish national minority in Lithuania: three reports later.”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 3 January 2012,, displayed on 25 November 2020

Mickiewicz or Mickevičius? For years, Lithuanian citizens of Polish origin have been asking for the right to keep their names in Polish spelling. Is it just a question of name? The situation of the national minorities in Lithuania has been discussed by world and regional organisations for already over ten years. And still it creates tensions between Vilnius and Warsaw.

Lithuanian citizenship, Polish nationality

There are several main groups of national minorities in Lithuania, including Poles, Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Jews and Tatars. The largest group is made of Poles (according to Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad), currently totalling 6,7% of the population (what amounts to 234,900 people). Members of this Polish national minority are mainly located in the Vilnius municipality district and the Salcininkaj municipality district. It is the result of centuries of Polish influence in the South Eastern part of Lithuania, dating back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was the biggest state in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As a consequence of the union and the strength of polish influence, most of the Lithuanian elites of the times were “polonized”. One good example is the family of Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize in literature receiver. He came from a “polonized” noble Lithuanian family, mainly spoke Polish and became a Polish diplomat after the Second World War. However, his uncle Oscar chose to become a Lithuanian diplomat after 1918. In his family, some other members opted for Belorussian nationality.

Another great example is the well-known Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz, born in Zaossie, a terrytory which belonged to Russia at that period of time. Large numbers of Lithuanians lived in that region in the 18th and 19th centuries. His father was Polish by origin. The life of Adam Mickiewicz was constantly associated with a Lithuanian, Polish and Belarussian culture. The three ones inspired him during his entire life.

As a result, during 1918–1939, in Vilnius and its region – occupied by Poland – most of the population stayed in a close relation with Polish language and traditions.

World War II brought a lot of tragic moments for all the nations. Moscow gave Vilnius back to the new Soviet Republic of Lithuania and Poles were resettled into Siberia by the Soviet government.They were considered to be the enemies of Soviet Union and more than 200,000 people had to leave their families in Lithuania. The Lithuanian SSR conducted a policy of “lithuanization” of Vilnius, which resulted in the city being mainly populated by Lithuanian speakers by the 1970s. The Soviet government attempted to erase all signs of Polish civilization in Vilnius and took measures aimed at preventing the spread of literature and polish cultural heritage in the country.

In the wake of the resurgence of Lithuanian nationalism in the 1980s, the Polish minority in Lithuania was manipulated by the Soviet Union's government and gave its support to the pro-Soviet Communist party in 1990. On the contrary, the Polish government in Warsaw never took part in the movement against the independence of Lithuania. This way the minority became just a tool for manipulation, which was used in a very smart and discreet manner. Possibly even in our days the dissatisfaction of the national minorities by the unsolved problems are often used in political strategies.

Nowadays there are three main sources of tension in the relations between Lithuanian government and the Polish minority: The first one is about the recognition by Lithuania of the right of the members of the Polish community to use their names and surnames in the pronunciation and written form accepted in the language of the national minority.

The second one is focused on the situation of the education system of Lithuania,that is the language in which the subjects are taught in schools. And the last one is about the full implementation of the right to the restitution of property. Nevertheless, the two governments signed different cooperation agreements, including provisions on the Polish minorities in Lithuania.

A difficult cooperation

A “Lithuanian-Polish Friendship and Cooperation Treaty” was signed on 26 April 1994. It includes several provisions on the protection of minorities : everyone would have the right to use the names and surnames in the pronounciation of the language of the national minority and would have the right to receive information (like city names or from public administration) in their own language in regions where there is a large percentage of the minority.

In addition, Lithuania joined the „Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” on the first of February 1995 (ratified in 2000 without any changes). From the very beginning Lithuania reported its current situation for the compliance and protection of human rights for all the people of the country, as well as for citizens of other countries living in the territory of the Republic of Lithuania. While Lithuania has been a party of the Framework Convention, there have been three reports submitted on the implemented works in order to improve its legal system, education, cultural development and other social and political spheres of life.

But the trick is in the details. These details make it difficult to put into practice all that asben declared declared improvements into the public life of Lithuania.

There are some letters in Polish language, which are not normally used in the Lithuanian language. On the other side, there are several Lithuanian letters, which are not used in most European languages and can be troublesome for the use in the international circles.

Lithuania prepared a draft “Law on Spelling of Names and Surnames in Documents” so as to solve all the problems in the life of the national minorities, but it was finally rejected by the Seimas. It included regulations regarding the possibility to write names and surnames in documents not only in Lithuanian language, but also in Latin letters.

This legal dispute in Lithuania raised concerns in Warsaw and in several European capital cities. The government should be the first to implement the principles of good faith and friendly relations between the peoples living in the country, including an observance of the rights and a respect for good manners.

Article 11 of the “Framework Convention” states that “when the area is inhabited by the substantial number of persons belonging to a national minority, the Parties should enable the usage of traditional local names, street names and other topographical indications in the language of the national minority”. Therefore, the Advisory Commission of the Convention expressed a concern about during which topographical indications in the minority languages were removed, leaving only Lithuanian indications in the areas inhabited by substantial numbers of representatives of the national minorities. It says: “...It also wishes to emphasize that the fact that topographical indications intended for the public are displayed "also in the minority language" does not affect in any way the compulsory status of the State language, the minority language being used in addition to this”.

A very strong tension arose again when the case Runevič-Vardyn got to the European Court of Justice regarding the order to change the entries of the documents indicating the

civil status of the claimants. As the result of the process the European Court of Justice stated, the name and the surname cannot be changed in the entries of the documents indicating

civil status of the Republic of Lithuania and may be written only in Lithuanian characters. Representatives of the Polish national minority addressed their complaints regarding “lithuanianisation” of their names. This dragged the Polish parliament and the Polish government into the dispute. Only using the Lithuanian alphabet destroyed any possibility to properly write properly Polish.

What shall be made to finally reach the agreement?

The Lithuanian do not want to fully recognize the right of national minorities to demand the translation and the transcription of their names and the names of the administrative buildings into the language of the minority. It is often treated as a contempt of the Lithuanian national language.

It seems necessary to develop a communication strategy that will explain to a wider range of people in Lithuania the fact that these measures are just a manifestation of tolerance towards minorities and the people who inhabit Lithuania. For sure this does not mean that the minority strives to assimilate the Lithuanian nation or put their own language widely into circulation.

This attitude of reluctance to accept the specific changes in order to recognize the possibility to use Polish names next to the lithuanian names is also endorsed by Lithuanian authorities, as noted by the Council of Europe.

“The Advisory Committee again notes with deep concern that, in the past, the Supreme Administrative Court has on several occasions invalidated decisions by local authorities allowing minority languages, alongside Lithuanian, to be used for topographical indications”.

What is remarkable is that people from the national minorities in Lithuania stick to their culture. Out of the nine people who were interviewed for the preparation of this article, nine of them expressed the wishwould like to raise their children through the traditions and culture of their national minority. It does not mean that they rejectdeny the Lithuanian culture.

None of the respondents denied being interested and involved in Lithuanian culture and its traditions. They agree that the world is changing and life in a so called "national vacuum" would be impossible, these people are open-minded and they are comfortable to study and use the state language of Lithuania.

In fact, most Lithuanians of Polish origin use more than one language at work, it is perceived as an advantage to know and use several languages, this opens up new opportunities, broadens the mind, allows for a more intimate acquaintance with the cultural heritage of different countries and people.

By the end, one should not overestimate the importance of the misunderstanding between the Lithuanians and Polish minorities. In many European countries, like in France, the situation is much less favorable to national minorities. You would never find a Polish name with a proper spelling in a French passport, just because some Polish letters do not exist in French. Should the applicable sources of law be reconsidered once again so to reconcile the nations?

This situation shows that the process of european integration and openness did not end with the Polish/Lithuanian accession to the EU in 2004, but that it will take at least 50 years more.


Picture credits : Winged Riders by bazilek100 on


Very interesting article, thanks. I have some remarks though:

1) some sentences do not sound too neutral to me. Saying that the presence of Poles in today's Lithuania "is the result of centuries of Polish influence in the South Eastern part of Lithuania, dating back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth" implies the separate existence of the notions of "Polish" and "Lithuania" (and its "South-East"), as related to their present territories, back then in the XVI-XVII century. The same goes for saying that Milosz's family was "polonized", or that "the Polish minority in Lithuania was manipulated by the Soviet Union's government": at least a footnote would be necessary :)

2) I agree with your opinion on the need to allow minorities to use minorities language, names and toponyms. I do think, though, that the main point of the Framework Convention relevant to the issue is not art.11(3) but art.5 and art.11(1), where they state:
*5(1) "The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
*5(2) Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.
*11(1) The Parties undertake to recognise that every person belonging to a national minority has the right to use his or her surname (patronym) and first names in the minority language and the right to official recognition of them, according to modalities provided for in their legal system."
This makes it pretty clear, in my view, that if Poles are members of a national minority in Lithuania in the sense of the Framework Convention (substancial historical presence), then the Lithuanian legal system must include a modality for them to officially use their Polish names. Not doing so might run counter to art.5, other than to art.11(1).

3) About the 2009 ECJ case Runevič-Vardyn: I think it should be better specified that "The Court gives a ruling on the manner in which forenames and surnames of citizens of the Union are to be entered on certificates of civil status issued by a Member State. According to the Court, the law of the EU, in particular Article 21 TFEU, does not preclude a refusal to amend surnames and forenames appearing on certificates of civil status, on condition that such a refusal is not liable to cause serious inconvenience to these concerned at administrative, professional and private levels." (; see also
This is different than saying that "the name and the surname cannot be changed (...) and may be written only in Lithuanian characters": The ECJ exactly says that there is a margin of appreciation for the governments, but that such a move may become contrary to EU law if "serious inconvenience" is caused to the minority member, therefore in that case the amendment must be allowed. Presence of "serious inconvenience" is to be judged by national courts on a case-by-case basis.

4) I agree with the conclusions of the article (though I prefer "acceptance" over "tolerance"), but the final comparison with France looks misleading to me: firstly, France has not signed at all the Framework Convention, so it would not be bound by it (though it should better do it, in my view); secondly, Poles would not be a "national minority" in France in the sense of the Framework Convention, as they would lack a significant historical presence. In order to compare with France, one should take into consideration Alsatians, Brettons, Corse or Basque minorities. A more valid example may be Bulgarian Turks, Hungarian-speaking Romanians, or minority members in Spain or Italy.

Thanks at the end for the very interesting article! :)

Davide D.

Dear Davide,

regarding the first point, yes one should perfecly say that Lithuania had a separate existence in the 16th and 17th. It was recognized by all the treaties between the two nations and Lithuania kept special rights in a charter for centuries. In the earlier times, it was frequent that co-existed a Grand Duke and a Polish King. The system has some correspondances with the Dauphin / King system in the French monarchy.

Touching this subject, you can have a look on both Polish and Lithuanian historiographies (they agree on the separate existence of Lithuania but desagree on the nature of the relationship between the two entities):

  1. N. DAVIES, God’s Playground : A History of Poland, vol. 1. The Origins to 1795, 2 vol. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
  2. A. GERUTIS, éd., Lithuania 700 years, trad par. A. BUDRECKIS (New York: Manyland Books, 1984).
  3. Z. KIAUPA, J. KIAUPENE, et A. KUNCEVICIUS, The history of Lithuania: before 1795, trad par. N. BORGES (Vilnius: Arturas Braziunas, 2000).
  4. S. C ROWELL, Lithuania ascending: a pagan empire within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  5. D. STONE, The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

Milosz described himself as a Polish-speaking Lithuanian and devoted one of his nivels to this problematic (By the Issa River).

  1. C. MILOSZ, Sur les bords de l’Issa, Collection L’Imaginaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).

And speaking about Soviet manipulations of the Polish minority, it was clearly the case when the Soviet authorities pushed the Russian and Polish minorities to unite against the Lithuanian independance movement (Sajudis).

  1. I. LESNIAK, « Le choix forcé des Polonais de Lituanie », Libération (Paris, novembre 4, 1991).
  2. G. MINIOTAITE, Nonviolent Resistance in Lithuania: A Story of Peaceful Liberation, Einstein Institution Monograph Series (Boston: Einstein Institution, 2002).
  3. K. CIPLINSKAITE, « Sajudis et le début du pluralisme politique en Lituanie (1988-2004) » (Mémoire de Master II, Sciences Po, 2006).

Philippe P.

Thanks Philippe for the footnotes :)

Dear Davide,
thank you for your time and the opinion on the article. I really appreciate your interest in it and your standpoint on the discussed topic. I would like to reply to some provisions you pointed out.

- The first concerns the existence of separate definitions of “polish” and “lithuanian” in XVI-XVII centuries – despite the fact that the two countries formed a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, they still retained considerable individuality. Not only separate treasury, army, law and authorities that they had, what is remarkable to notice – people used also separate languages.

- The second regards the article of the Framework Convention. You are right, the article 5 is very important and it should be implemented by the government, especially in cases when the cultural and religious aspects are taken into consideration. But in my opinion the article 11 (p. 1,2,3) is more suitable in the particular case when we speak about "the right to use surnames and first names in the minority language and the right to official recognition of them". I wanted to emphasize the importance of the legal regulation which entitles the members of the national minorities to require the implementation of the provisions. The article 5, however, reflects my statement about the necessity for the government to support the principals and show the respect for the international treaties, including the following aspects: "culture, essential elements of the identity of the members of the national minorities, their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage".

- And the third: the Runevič-Vardyn (or Runiewicz-Wardyn)case. I agree there is the difference between saying that "ECJ stated the forenames and the surnames cannot be changed and should be recorded only in lithuanian characters" and the literal statement of ECJ. This follows from the "ruling" nature of the statement of the mentioned Court. On the other hand, the ECJ stated as follows: ( )
"not precluding the competent authorities of a Member State from refusing, pursuant to national rules which provide that a person’s surnames and forenames may be entered on the certificates of civil status of that State only in a form which complies with the rules governing the spelling of the official national language, to amend, on the birth certificate and marriage certificate of one of its nationals, the surname and forename of that person in accordance with the spelling rules of another Member State".
I interpret this as a potential capability for the national authorities to apply the chosen form of name and surname of the claimant.
Moreover, in the preliminary ruling ECJ expressed its opinion: (par. 87) "the objective pursued by national rules such as those at issue in the main proceedings, designed to protect the official national language by imposing the rules which govern the spelling of that language, constitutes, in principle, a legitimate objective capable of justifying restrictions on the rights of freedom of movement and residence provided for in Article 21 TFEU and may be taken into account when legitimate interests are weighed against the rights conferred by European Union law"
and: (par. 71) "Article 21 TFEU does not preclude the competent authorities of a Member State from refusing, pursuant to national rules which provide that a person’s surnames and forenames may be entered on the certificates of civil status of that State only in a form which complies with the rules governing the spelling of the official national language, to amend the surname which one of its nationals had prior to marriage and the forename of that person, where those names were registered at birth in accordance with those rules"
And finally, ECJ at the beginning of its opinion confirms: (par. 58) "The applicant bases her request on, inter alia, Article 21 TFEU, pointing to the inconvenience caused by the fact that, when exercising the rights conferred by those provisions, she is obliged to use civil status documents on which her surname and forename do not appear in their Polish form and for that reason do not reflect the nature of her relationship with the second applicant in the main proceedings or even with her son".
What, in my opinion, only emphasizes the fact that the Court understands that the refusal of the public authorities of Lithuania to change the transcription of the forename and the surname of the applicant may cause inconvenience for her. This confirms paragraph 74 of the preliminary ruling.
The thing is to determine if the everyday complications concerning the evident difference between the two forms of the surnames can or cannot be considered as the serious inconvenience? The name and the surname “as a means of personal identification and a link to a family” especially for one, who lives outside the country – the party of the dispute, where neither languages are in use…

Thank you,
Ala S.

Oh.. and just as a curiosity - my own story with the surname recording in Poland ended happily when I was getting married in some Polish city a year ago, the surname of mine /Šabanovič/ was recorded correctly with all the "gulls" above the letters in my marriage certificate :) so I can say a BIG THANK YOU to the Civil Registry Office of Poland for not making me any problems and for not forcing me to go to the European Court of Justice to clear this out :)

Ala S.

Add new comment