From Grand Duke Gediminas to present – A history of how Lithuania has treated its ethnic communities

Grand Duke Gediminas

Some of these communities have living here for centuries and others having moved more recently. In his letters written in 1323, Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas invited foreign artisans, doctors and merchants to come to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and settle without interference.

Grand Duke Vytautas gifted lands to Tatar tribes who later became his close allies. What is the history of ethnic minorities in Lithuania and how do they live now?

People of more than 150 ethnic backgrounds live in Lithuania and about 300 communities of ethnic minorities exist today. These minorities influence Lithuania’s political, cultural and economic environment and their contributions are clearly visible and appreciated, according to the director of the Ethnic Minority Department, Vida Montvydaitė.

Everyone who lives in Lithuania should contribute to creating a modern, strong and independent nation, she says.

Different periods for different reasons

What are the oldest and the youngest ethnic minority communities in Lithuania?

Historical and geopolitical factors influenced the formation of Lithuania’s minorities, most notably different periods in the history of the Grand Duchy and various occupations.

More than half of the population in the Grand Duchy consisted of Ruthenians who lived in territories that are currently part of Belarus as well as Russia and Ukraine.

The first ethnic minority communities in Lithuania were Germans, Jews, Tatars, Crimean Karaites and Roma. Polish people moved to Lithuania after the union in the 16th century and between the two world wars. An increase of Russians was observed during the years of the Tsar’s rule (1795-1918), when Russian Old Believers fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution.

The Soviet period also saw a surge of Russian people, as many industrial enterprises and military structures were being created. People from other Soviet-occupied nations, such as Georgians, Kazakhs and Azerbaijanis, came to Lithuania during different times and for different reasons.

For example, after the 1988 Spitak earthquake in Azerbaijan, 1,500 people were evacuated and brought to Lithuania from that region. Due to the ethnic Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1989 to 1990, many people fled to Lithuania from Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Globalisation and opportunities to work and live abroad allow people to move and change their residence easier. We’re no longer surprised by Indian, Japanese and Chinese people who live and work right besides us. It’s likely that when the situation in the world changes, the size and variation of ethnic minorities will also change in Lithuania.

How many ethnic minority communities are there in Lithuania? How are they distributed across Lithuania’s cities and counties?

According to the 2011 census, there are 154 different ethnicities in Lithuania. The biggest minority group consists of Polish people and there are more than 200,000 Poles living in Lithuania. Most of them live in the districts of Šalčininkai (77.8%), Vilnius (52.1%), Trakai (30.1%) and Švenčionys (26%).

The Russian community is also quite substantial, consisting of 177,000 people. The most communities live in the districts of Visaginas (51.9%), Klaipėda (19.6%), Zarasai (18.7) and Švenčionys (13.3%).

There are about 36,000 Belarusians, 16,000 Ukrainians, 3,000 Jews, and 2,700 Tatars in Lithuania. There are also approximately 2,400 Germans, 2,100 Roma, 2,000 Latvians, 1,200 Armenians, about 600 Azerbaijanis and 500 Moldavians.

Vilnius is the biggest multi-ethnic city in Lithuania, with 128 nationalities living there. Kaunas comes in second, with about 80, then Klaipėda with 70 different nationalities living there. Trakai is famous for its active communities of Tatars and Karaims.

Safe, understood and necessary

How well are ethnic minorities integrated into our society? What problems arise and how does the government help solve them?

The process of integration isn’t simple and one-sided. Ethnic minorities aren’t the only ones that must take part in the process, the Lithuanian society has to help as well. Complete integration happens when people are allowed to nurture their own national culture and emotional state while living in the country.

People’s attitudes, involvement in community life, development of skills necessary for integration and many other things are also part of a complete integration into society. The success of integration is measured by how safe, understood and needed one feels in the country.

We can definitely say that the situation of ethnic minorities has changed for the better in recent years. Young people that graduate from Lithuanian schools know the Lithuanian language well, understand the legal and social systems. It is noticeable that these people find work easier than before, actively take part in politics and contribute to cultural life.

However, there are still problems that need to be fixed, and they will always exist. Society is changing, and there will always be things to improve.

We must help ethnic minorities preserve their identities and integrate into the social, political, economic and cultural life of the country. The aim of the Ethnic Minority Department is to create a harmonious society and make use of the potential that these minorities can offer in order to make progress. We will always encourage people to look for solutions to problems together.

We think that consultations and cooperation with ethnic minority organisations is required. For this reason, the Ethnic Minority Department includes a council of ethnic communities that proposes ideas and has a say in how issues to do with ethnic minority policies are dealt with.

Last year, in November, a new 26-member ethnic minority council was approved for four years. The council is headed by Gunta Ronė, who is from Latvia, her assistants are Marytė Maslauskaitė, a representative of the German community, and Vladislavas Voiničius, a Polish community representative. The council consists of Georgian, Roma, Romanian, Lebanese, Kazakh, Jewish, Greek, Chechen and Uzbek representatives.

How many weekend schools do ethnic minority communities run? How are they doing with preserving their language and customs?

One of the department’s priorities is integrating children and young adults into the country’s public life and giving them civil education.

We also try to pay special attention to Sunday schools. Our financing rules have weekend schools set as a priority. Sunday schools that submit a project are granted financial aid for education materials, books and excursions. This year, we are planning training for teachers of those schools and a traditional festival for the students.

There are more than 30 ethnic minority Sunday schools in Lithuania. Armenian Sunday schools are located in Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda, an Azerbaijani Sunday school is open in Klaipėda, there’s a Belarusian school in Visaginas and Klaipėda. Estonian, Greek, Karaim, Kazakh and Latvian schools are situated in Vilnius, Polish schools are located in Kėdainiai, Švenčionys and Visaginas, Roma schools are organized in Vilnius and Panevėžys, Russian schools can be found in Alytus, Kėdainiai and Marijampolė, Tatar schools are in Alytus, Vilnius and Visaginas. Ukrainian Sunday schools are located in Vilnius, there‘s an Uzbek school in Visaginas, German schools exist in Kaunas and Visaginas, Jewish schools in Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda. Some of these schools work not only as schools but also as children’s clubs, ethnic ensembles and summer camps. Some of them also allow adults to join. It’s all very individual and up to the needs of the community.

Which ethnic communities are best at nurturing and presenting their identity? How do they contribute to the well-being of Lithuania?

The contribution of every ethnic minority to Lithuania’s cultural, economic and political life is significant, noticed and valued. There are many events and organisations that are granted financial aid by the state. Russian and Polish communities deserve a separate mention for their yearly international folklore festivals Pokrovskiye kolokola and Lenkų gėlės (Polish flowers). The European Days of Jewish Culture, Tatar celebrations are also quite popular. The Karaim language camp is interesting to linguists and language researchers from all over the world.

Many ethnic communities contributed to the Sąjūdis, the political organisation which led the reform movement for Lithuanian independence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of them were chosen to be deputies in the provisional Seimas after Lithuania regained its independence. Ethnic communities were also active in trying to stop the bloodshed of January 13, 1991.

Translated from Lithuanian by Aivaras Medeubetovas

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