The law prohibits discrimination against ethnic or national minorities, but intolerance and societal discrimination persisted. Minority ethnic groups, including Russians, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Karaite Jews, constituted approximately 16.5 percent of the population.
As of December 1, the Ministry of the Interior reported 265 cases of alleged discrimination and incitement of racial or ethnic hatred (most of the instances investigated involved the Internet), compared with 332 in 2011 and 159 in 2010. According to a former Vilnius County prosecutor, prosecutions for these crimes were infrequent because judges and other law enforcement officials gave priority to “real-life” crimes with identifiable victims.
The country’s national day, February 16, and the date of the country’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, March 11, continued to be occasions for nationalist manifestations. Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis urged participants to avoid extreme expression. On February 16, youths wearing skinhead-like jackets and paraphernalia marched in downtown Kaunas shouting “Lithuania for Lithuanians.” Authorities revoked a permit originally issued for the same day, but a different time, to the Tolerant Youth Association, but the organization held a small rally without incident.
On March 11, approximately 900 people participated in a nationalist rally on Gedimino Avenue in central Vilnius. Human rights observers noted that, although the 2012 rally was more civilized than some held in the past, the organizers again demonstrated their support for an ethnically homogeneous society. In the evening, following the nationalists’ march, human rights advocates organized their own, smaller, festivities under the rubric, “Let’s Celebrate Freedom,” which emphasized openness and “Europeanness.”
The small Romani community (approximately 3,000 persons) continued to experience problems, including discrimination in access to education, housing, and health care; in employment; and in relations with police. There were no official charges of police abuse. Extreme poverty, illiteracy, perceived high criminality, and the negative attitudes of mainstream society resulted in the social exclusion of Roma; 40 percent of Roma did not know the Lithuanian language. Many Roma did not have identification papers, and a number of them, although born in the country, were effectively stateless. The Romani unemployment rate continued to be more than 95 percent. Minority advocates continued to criticize the Vilnius city government for focusing on law enforcement in the Romani community but doing little to integrate Roma into the broader community.
On February 13, following a court ruling that they were illegal, authorities tore down three houses in the Vilnius Roma settlement that, according to the European Roma Rights Center, normally housed three families, including a number of children. Roma had successfully sued authorities in a similar case contending that they were forced to live in these houses due to illegal acts by authorities that deprived them of the possibility of obtaining housing legally.
On March 20, authorities approved an action plan for 2012-14 under which the Ministry of Culture allocated 396,000 litas ($151,000) and the EU 251,000 litas ($96,000) during the year for the integration of Roma in the areas of education, culture, job empowerment, antidiscrimination, and social issues. Human rights and Roma NGOs were not included in the group that formulated the plan. On March 15, seven NGOs submitted their joint comments to the ministry on the proposed action plan. They contended that the plan did not correspond to EU policy on the integration of Roma and offered recommendations for improvements in the areas of housing, education, employment, and health care. Authorities were not responsive, and on March 21, the NGOs sent a joint resolution to the European Commission (EC) calling its attention to the action plan’s alleged shortcomings relative to EC policies.
Tensions between the Polish minority and the majority population persisted. Both sides accepted mediation efforts by OSCE high commissioner for national minorities Knut Vollebaek, who addressed such issues as minority education and the proper orthography of Polish names.
The Polish minority continued to object to requirements, enacted in 2011, that certain courses be taught in the Lithuanian language in schools throughout the country. They protested that the requirement to teach the Lithuanian language, history, and geography in Lithuanian would undermine local Polish culture and identity. They also complained about a requirement in the law that the country’s students complete a single, uniform Lithuanian language examination at the end of their studies. The government continued to implement the new regulations during the year. High Commissioner Vollebaek noted that the requirements did not violate EU norms or standards, but, following his recommendation, the government established an eight-year transition period for the language examination, during which minority students will receive preferential grading.
Restrictions on the use of Polish in street signs and other areas of life continued to be contentious. In December the EC upheld the government’s policy on use of Lithuanian in Polish minority schools. It also ruled that laws concerning minority linguistic rights did not entitle members of an ethnic minority to use the minority language’s version of their names.