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Integration of Foreigners and Ethnic Minorities | Lithuania |

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Integration of Foreigners and Ethnic Minorities

Benjamin Brake

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According to the 2001 census, 83.5% of the population are ethnic Lithuanians. Poles make up the largest of the minority groups with 6.7% of the total population, followed by Russians (6.3%), Belarusians (1.2%), and Ukrainians (0.7%). Jews, Germans, Tatars, Latvians, Roma, Armenians and "others" together made up 0.7% of the population. A total of 0.9% of the population did not state their ethnicity. Lithuanians generally have a positive relationship with their national minorities, even if discrimination cannot be excluded. Measures towards integration are aimed equally at foreign citizens and ethnic minorities.

Consisting of about 83.5% ethnic Lithuanians, Lithuania is the Baltic State in which the ethnic Baltic population forms the largest majority. In comparison, ethnic Estonians represent 68% of the population of Estonia, and ethnic Latvians 59% of the population of Latvia. In both countries the proportion of ethnic Russians is significantly higher. An anomaly occurs in eastern Lithuania, where Lithuanians only make up about half of the population, followed by the indigenous Poles who represent a third of the population there. In some regions near the Polish border, ethnic Poles are clearly in the majority. By contrast, while the Russian group is concentrated in certain areas of Lithuania, they do not represent the majority anywhere.

Unlike in the neighbouring Baltic States, the general population in Lithuania does not perceive the Russian minority as a threat. This is partly attributable to the fact that at the time of Soviet control comparatively few Russians and other Slavs were resettled in Lithuania. As a result, immediately before the regaining of independence, Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians made up just 12.3% of the population, whereas they were significantly more populous in Latvia (42.3%) and Estonia (35.2%). In addition, Russians were better integrated in Lithuania than was the case in Latvia and Estonia. According to the 1989 census, 37.8% of ethnic Russians had a good command of the Lithuanian language. In comparison, only 15.2% of ethnic Russians in Estonia and 22.4% of ethnic Russians in Latvia had a good command of those countries' official languages. Nonetheless, the good cultural infrastructure of the ethnic Russians remaining in the country, with their Russian language newspapers and a wide variety of cultural activities and literature in their mother tongue, means that for many, learning the Lithuanian language is not a priority.

With regard to the Russian and Polish minorities in Lithuania, the government passed new regulations for education in schools in 2002. This established firmly for the first time that the language of a minority may also be the language of education and that lessons for children of national minorities may take place in their own language providing the Lithuanian language is taught parallel. Of the 2 058 schools in Lithuania, 56 conduct lessons in Russian and a further 49 have introduced Russian-speaking classes. Accordingly, 5.9% of a total of 567 453 pupils are taught in Russian. By contrast, 83% of pupils are taught in Lithuanian. Other languages of instruction are Polish and Ukrainian. Those ethnic minorities which are smaller in number, such as the Armenians, Belarusians and Estonians, and which are also not locally concentrated, are offered the option of Sunday schools so as to consolidate their culture, language and identity.

According to absolute figures, the Roma, with 3 000 members, are one of the smaller ethnic minority groups. Despite their relatively small number, their integration has proven in some regards difficult, resulting among other things from the fact that they frequently have no command of the Lithuanian language. This creates other problems, such as a high number of school dropouts (a fifth of Roma children drop out of school before reaching school leaving age), unemployment, illiteracy and housing issues. Moreover, Roma in particular, and ethnic minorities generally, are still victims of discrimination. The International Helsinki Federation of Human Rights, for example, reports discrimination from the police, the authorities and from teachers at school. The predominant image of Roma among the Lithuanian public, reinforced by the media, is essentially negative. In 2001 the government adopted an integration programme tailored to the Roma minority, which in the same year brought about the establishment of a Roma Public Centre in Vilnius, and in subsequent years prioritised initiatives in the education sector. As a result, schoolbooks were published for Roma and, in 2002, pre-school education especially for Roma children was offered for the first time.

Judging by interethnic relationships of a personal nature (e.g. with friends, acquaintances, relatives), the integration of minorities in Lithuania may be regarded as somewhat advanced, whereas in the employment market, and particularly among smaller firms, essentially monoethnic structures may be observed.

Compared with Lithuanians there is a higher rate of unemployment among the ethnic minorities (2002: 18.5% v 12.8%). According to a Ministry of Social Security report, ethnic Poles and ethnic Russians in particular are more frequently affected by unemployment than the Lithuanian control group. That can be attributed to, among other things, a lack of language competence.

A glance at educational levels shows significant differences between the ethnic minorities. The Jewish minority has the highest level of education overall, followed by the Armenians, Ukrainians and the Russians. Poles and Roma represent the lowest number of people with higher qualifications (e.g. university degrees). As it is necessary to have a command of Lithuanian in order to enrol in university, ethnic minorities increasingly attend schools where lessons are conducted in Lithuanian.

Although minorities account for about 17% of the population, they made up 10% of members in the national parliament (Seimas) in 2000. In the higher management levels and at government level too, minorities tend to be less commonly represented. Where political representation is concerned there is the AWPL (Polish Election Action of Lithuania) and the Russian Union of Lithuania; between them they hold seven of the 51 seats in the Vilnius city council. A further 14 councillors are members of the "For Vilnius" group, which regards itself as representing Lithuanian Poles, among others. However, at present none of the three groups is represented in the Seimas.



  1. The Lithuanian Department of Statistics uses the terms "nationality" and "ethnicity" synonymously. Following the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and Eurostat, the term "member of a national (ethnic) minority" is defined as follows: A member of an ethnic minority is a person who freely admits belonging to this group and endeavours to preserve the culture of this group (namely the language, observances, customs and national and ethnic identity).

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