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.