Fight for right to mother tongue

November 17, 1995

The right to mother-tongue education continues to cause protests across eastern Europe.

In Romania, MPs from the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) announced last week that they will vote in favour of any modification of the new education law aimed at decentralisation, even if these do not entirely coincide with the UDMR's proposals. The Hungarians say the law as it stands curtails even further their already limited linguistic rights, in particular by demanding that all entrance examinations to higher and further education be conducted in Romanian.

During the past few weeks, several prominent Hungarians have staged protest fasts against the law. The latest to do so is Adam Katona, leader of the Transylvanian Initiative platform of the UMDR, who maintains that his fast is necessary to shake-up the Hungarians of Romania.

In Moldova university students have resumed the protest campaign launched last term in favour of Romanian. They are demanding that the state language be officially called Romanian, not Moldovan. The Moldovan language, they say, was an invention of the Soviet propagandists, who imposed on it the Cyrillic alphabet which does not fit its phonetics.

What the Moldovans fear in prospect has become a reality in Belarus. The "equal status" for Russian voted for in the referendum last May has meant, in effect, a return to Russian as the language of tuition at all levels, except for those who "opt-in" for tuition in what is still, officially, the state language. A report just issued by the Belarusian Language Society indicates that Belarusian-taught courses in the first year of schooling have fallen to a third in comparison with the previous academic year. Although parents should be consulted, in most cases the change has been made without consultation. The society has issued a series of appeals to educational specialists, politicians, voters, and the world intellectual community to help save the language and hence the independence of the country.

In neighbouring Lithuania, the Polish minority continues to develop the Polish-language university in Vilnius, although the Lithuanian government refuses to recognise its qualifications. Lithuanian officials explain their opposition to the Polish university by saying that young people who receive their higher education in Polish will seek jobs in Poland rather than Lithuania, causing a brain drain the country cannot afford. Yet since the Lithuanians will not recognise the Polish university's degrees, its students do a final year in Poland.

In Macedonia, the new Albanian-taught University of Tetovo is unrecognised by the government, which has consistently tried to prevent its operation. Police arrested the rector last spring and in July they confiscated a gift of Albanian-language science textbooks brought by a visiting academic. And recently the ministry of defence declared that because the university is unconstitutional, its students have no right to deferment from military service.

In Slovakia, a new law "on defence of the Slovak language" has just come into force, which the ethnic minorities see as discriminatory. For several months the Hungarians of Slovakia have been waging a campaign against the proposed introduction of "alternative" (ie bilingual Slovak/Hungarian) schools which they see as a first step to assimilation, the Slovaks, however, see the law as restoring the dignity of their own language.

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