Ethnic Lithuanians in semi-Soviet Belarus

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Date: Thu, 1 Jun 2000 17:23:26 +0200 (EET)
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Subject: Ethnic Lithuanians in semi-Soviet Belarus

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Ethnic Lithuanians in semi-Soviet Belarus

The Baltic Times
By Uta Volgmann & Rokas M. Tracevskis PELESA/MINSK/VILNIUS
Lithuanian cultural life in Belarus is slowly awakening after decades
of assimilation during tsarist Russian, Polish and Soviet periods
there during the 20th century. About 18,000 people of Lithuanian
origin live concentrated mostly in a few villages and towns in the
north of Belarus near the Lithuanian border.
The inhabitants of villages Pelesa, Gerveciai and Rimdziunai managed
to preserve their Lithuanian language although they are just islands
surrounded by the Slavic-speaking population. In those villages
Lithuanians are still the majority. Lithuania and Belarus - good
neighbors, but not friends. Relations between Lithuania and Belarus
are diplomatically polite, but far from friendly. Lithuanian political
analyst Algimantas Cekuolis said the Lithuanian-Belarusian border
became a line between Western and Eastern civilizations. It is enough
just to look at Belarusian newspapers. "The creation of a union
between Belarus and Russia is a guarantee of our security and
sovereignty," wrote Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in his
address to the nation published on the front page of his country's
main daily, Sovietskaya Belarussya of May 6. On May 9 Minsk witnessed
an official military and civic parade with portraits of Lukashenko,
Stalin and Lenin. Ten days later General Vladimir Uskhopchik was
appointed defense deputy minister of Belarus.
The Lithuanian Prosecutor General's office accuses him of being a
commander of Soviet aggression against Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991, when
the Soviet army killed 14 and injured more than 700 unarmed Lithuanian
civilians. Officials in Vilnius demanded his extradition to Lithuania
for trial several times in the past. Vygaudas Usackas, the Lithuanian
vice foreign minister, conveyed Lithuania's dismay to the Belarusian
ambassador at Uskhopchik's recent nomination. "General Uskhopchik
knows the smell of Lithuanian blood very well, and he is not afraid of
this smell," said Semion Sharetsky, the expatriated chairman of the
Belarusian Parliament. Lukashenko dissolved this Parliament. Sharetsky
has found refuge in Vilnius. His Parliament is recognized as
legitimate by the international community, except Russia. However,
these disagreements do not influence the cultural life of ethnic
Lithuanians, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Belarus, so far.
In Soviet times the very existence of ethnic Lithuanians was denied by
the authorities in Minsk, says historian Rimantas Jasas.  The Soviet
KGB even detained language scientists from Vilnius or Moscow coming to
investigate disappearing Lithuanian dialects. Now Lithuanians enjoy
relative cultural freedom there, say leaders of the local Lithuanian
For Belarusians themselves, national identity is ambiguous. During
Soviet times, most Belarusians started to consider themselves "Soviet
people." After the collapse of the Soviet Empire this attitude has not
changed much. At the beginning of his presidency, Lukashenko rejected
a nationalistic policy. Russian language dominates all spheres of
There is just one Belarusian language school left in Minsk. Belarus is
already occupied by Russia, said Sharetsky. Trying to preserve the
forefathers' culture Virginija Tarnauskaite, a resident of Minsk and
head of the Lithuanian community in Belarus said Lithuanians as an
ethnic minority still have some problems. "They [the authorities]
avoid the term 'ethnic minority,' and we are seen as an ethnic
cultural group.
As long as we sing only Lithuanian songs and dance Lithuanian
traditional dances, we do not get into conflict with Belarusian
authorities, but the government is afraid of a political organization
of the ethnic minorities as civic groups," Tarnauskaite said.
One main problem is the legal status of the Lithuanian schools. There
are two secondary schools in Rimdziunai-Gerveciai and in Pelesa, which
the Lithuanian state built and has financially supported since the
early 1990s. The secondary school in Pelesa is a private school.  "In
case of a worsening cooperation with Belarusian authorities, it
remains the property of the Lithuanian state," Remigijus Motuzas,
director general of the Lithuania's Department for Ethnic Minorities
and Lithuanian Diaspora, said. The Belarusian and Lithuanian parts of
the Rimdziunai state secondary school were united last year. The
Lithuanian and Belarusian governments closely cooperate in the work
now. Graduates of Lithuanian secondary schools in Belarus have at
least two options: to study in Belarus or to enter a university in
Lithuania. "This year three graduates from the Lithuanian secondary
schools in Belarus will start to study at the Vilnius Pedagogical
University and they uttered their wish to return to their hometowns as
teachers. They can help to awaken and support Lithuanian culture,"
Motuzas said. Beside the two secondary schools, there are several
Lithuanian weekend schools and kindergartens in Minsk and in several
small towns of Belarus. In the weekend schools young pupils and
grown-ups learn about Lithuanian literature, geography, history and
music.  The teachers of the weekend schools do not get their salary
from the Belarusian state, but the Lithuanian government pays for it.
Teachers from the weekend school in the town of Lida see no
difficulties in the cooperation with local Belarusian authorities. "We
are even allowed to celebrate Lithuanian National holidays," Virginija
Tarnauskaite said. "We are very dependent on the good will of local
authorities, or nice uncles and aunts and personal contacts." Her
statement refers to the current political situation where any law or
rule can be created, changed and violated at any time.
The Government of Lithuania gives special assistance to the Lithuanian
community in Belarus. The Lithuanian state financed the building of
the high school in Pelesa and Rimdziunai, also a hostel for pupils and
living houses and teachers' flats.  Besides these big investments, the
Lithuanian government steadily supplies the schools with books and
delivers the Lithuanian press to Belarus. It also provides help for
the organization of conferences and cultural events. Under these
circumstances, one is inclined to ask about the Lithuanians attempts
to settle in Lithuania.
"Some Lithuanians have a Lithuanian passport besides their Belarusian
citizenship and they could take the chance to move to Lithuania, but
most of them want to stay in Belarus. The families are sometimes mixed
Lithuanian-Belarusian or Lithuanian-Polish, and the non-Lithuanian
partner would probably feel foreign in Lithuania," Maryte Sensiukaite
from the Department for Ethnic Minorities and Lithuanian Diaspora
Lithuanians have been living in Belarus for ages - only the border
lines seem to have a historical proclivity to move. They have
deep-rooted traditions and their own lifestyle and are willing to keep
it, Sensiukaite said.

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