The text of the former first Director of the Departament of National Minorities, which was based on the speech, presented in the international conference in Vilnius “Totalitarianism and Tolerance. Challenges to Freedom”

Twenty years ago, when I was working as a chief executive officer at the Nationalities Department, many unfamiliar people would approach me in the street to cheerfully announce that they have foreign friends who they perfectly get along with, that children of different nationalities play together in courtyards, that their neighbours are Poles, Russians, and Jews and there is never any trouble, while in the public sphere so much has started to be said about disagreements among people of different nationalities. Why and how they arose?

One has to remember that at that point conflicts were arising in many parts of the world. Disagreements on ethnic and religious grounds fuelled the Balkan and Transnistria Wars.  Efforts have been made to stir up hostilities among us too: Poles were urged to seek autonomy; Russians were told that there will be no place for them in the Republic of Lithuania; neighbouring countries were struggling to settle the questions of nationality and national sovereignty, discussing state and national language use, and so on. All of this came back to Lithuania like an echo. At the level of everyday consciousness it turned into a widely discussed dichotomy of tolerance-intolerance, loyalty-disloyalty, goodwill-animosity and native-alien, which was indeed causing anxiety. Thus it is of no wonder that people rushed to express their surprise at the events and reassure that they got on and will get on well and that we can be proud of long established and enduring religious and ethnic tolerance in Lithuania. Thanks God, we avoided religious or ethnic clashes at that time.

The situation of ethnic minorities and particular religions in Lithuania attracted a lot of foreign attention. Almost every month, and sometimes more frequently, guests from different international organisations would come for a visit, and we would have to provide them with various reports and to explain what we do to avoid ethnic and religious disagreements leading to bloodshed in other countries. Once we even discussed these issues with the former President of the USA Richard Nixon.

         Information about the actual situation rarely reached other countries; moreover, it was often consciously and deliberately distorted. After all, the relations among different ethnic and religious groups are a very ephemeral medium. Emotions are easy to manipulate and difficult to distinguish from rational arguments.  This is a breeding ground for setting people against each other. Furthermore, a minority, just because it is a minority, often feels vulnerable, insecure and becomes particularly suspicious. Such circumstances are especially favourable for activities of people with personal grievances, complexes or overreaching ambitions.

Exploiting the situation, they blame all the issues and failures on confessional and ethnic differences. To arouse animosity towards otherness and to explain all the difficulties solely on these grounds is very easy, thus these people remarkably quickly become heroes, fighters and leaders. They become important, first and foremost for their own self: finally they are visible.  They are least concerned with national or public interests. Shortly afterwards there appear followers. It is then that a simple disagreement, misunderstanding and often an unwillingness to clarify turn into a conflict, which asometimes ends in a bloodshed or inter-state miscommunication. While, actually, it all began from rights and duties, and the question of their reconciliation.

Once, it must have been around 1992, at a meeting with Polish journalists from Hajnowka, after telling about Polish schools in Lithuania, their textbooks printed with government funds, teachers educated at former Pedagogical University, Polish press, radio and television broadcasts in Polish language, a vast number of Polish organisations, diverse in their nature and character, arts associations, theatre, church mass in Polish language, legal equality of all Lithuanian citizens and so on, it was then that one of the collocutors asked “If everything is so good, why is it so bad?”. This is when I realised for the first time that the information reaching Poland was not adequate to reality. Later this was also confirmed by high-ranking Polish officials visiting Lithuania, after they familiarised themselves with the situation in Vilnius region.

            Incoming delegations of international organisations posed us very simple questions. These questions seemed rather strange to us, sometimes even laughable. I remember, once, the delegation of the Council of Europe asked how we regard a restaurant waiter who is not a Lithuanian. Would we not turn our back to him, would we not be afraid to place an order? Would we invite a non-Lithuanian pleader to defend our case? Do we go to see a doctor who is a Jew? To tell the truth, these questions surprised us. I remember how someone wittily replied that both Jewish pleaders and doctors are trusted more than the Lithuanian ones.

Now, when Lithuanian citizens themselves dispersed around the world, these questions no longer appear laughable. Moreover, they seem to have turned against us. We do hear complaints that Brits or Danes are not that welcoming to foreigners; they do not let foreigners in their social circle; do not take them to well paid jobs and so on. And if that finally happens, it does only following enormous and strenuous efforts which, after various inspections, prove that you are worth of locals’ companionship. In brief, to become a local abroad is not easy. Similar complaints can be heard from immigrants in Lithuania.

Last year, while working in Finland, I took part in a conference organised by former Foreign Affairs Minister Aleksandras Stubas’ wife, who is British. The conference was on foreigners’ adaptation and integration into Finnish society, or, using the terminology of today’s conference – on tolerance.

Since, while 20 years ago Finland was quite a homogenous country, its population has now considerably changed. If at that time black people or Russian speakers in the streets were quite uncommon, now no one is surprised that minister’s adviser or a cashier is black and speaks fluent Finnish (otherwise he would not be able to work on a till and not only on a till – anywhere at all).  And how many mixed families, kebab shops, Chinese, Thai or Indian restaurants, how many places of non-traditional religious worship are there? And even though religious tolerance in Finland is exemplary, bearing in mind that Finnish themselves profess different religions – protestant and orthodox; even though foreigners in Finland have access to the same social guarantees, the same subsidised secondary and university education as the Finnish do; even though the country has many subsidised projects that enable youth from all over the world to come and study in Finland, where they are particularly invited and welcome, and in the past years the number of students from Russia and new members of the European Union countries increased substantially; even though Finland gave asylum to Somali refugees and has a particular resettlement program to support in every way possible citizens of other countries who are of Finnish descent, especially Karelians and  Ingrians; even though the country administers many programmes to support African countries, and the President Tarja Halonen herself takes great care to cooperate in implementing development support programmes for African states – the increased number of migrants made the issue of tolerance very relevant. It became very obvious that the processes of tolerance, adaptation and integration are not straightforward and one-sided and are not based solely on good will.  

Thus it is of no surprise that despite overall tolerance and wellbeing, enabling Finland to implement the above programmes, one can also hear voices dubious if the state took on not too heavy a burden? While psychologically the society welcomes foreigners quite positively, economic difficulties and arrogant behaviour of some immigrants forces them to think and act differently. In the eastern part of Finland, where many immigrants who received political asylum live, there have already occurred racist attacks; and in that part of Helsinki where refugees got social housing Finnish no longer want to live. Hence, naturally, there arise questions such as: Where are the boundaries? Does it pose a danger for the security of society? To what extent can one open up, to what extent can society bear and tolerate? Yes, a foreigner who has immigrated to Finland works and creates GDP, his children, like all other pupils, get free education, meals at school and healthcare but how should one treat his relatives, elderly parents, who move to their children in Finland too and who need social and medical assistance? Who should bear this burden – the children or the tolerant state that sheltered them? Last year, two immigrant cases on their parents’ eviction from Finland, one from Egypt and one from Russia, have echoed loudly across the country. The public opinion was not unanimous. In addition, the introduction of tuition fees is also under consideration. Last year it was applied to the citizens of all the non-EU countries and they, in turn, complained of being discriminated against. Thus the question “Where are the boundaries of tolerance?” is not plucked out of the air. Based on this reasoning, the party of “real Finnish” won 30 parliamentary seats in this year’s election in comparison with barely few held previously.

All of this shows that tolerance is not an abstract concept. It has historical aspect; it is inseparable from concreteness, although traditional encyclopaedic definition remains the same – forbearance of difference. How can we assure this?

Tolerance can be talked about in moral, legal, logical, philosophical and other discourse. That is one way.

Secondly, it is one matter, when tolerance is talked about and it is declared publicly and verbally and a different one, when it has to be proved to exist by action, when intolerant behaviour has to be publicly assessed and condemned.  What does obstruct its way – danger, threat, grievance or fear?

Thirdly, it balances on a strictly undefined boundary between tolerance and indifference, between tolerance and conformism. This raises a question if tolerance can be unbounded and unlimited. For instance, what would happen if we tolerated the formation and actions of different groups threatening public security? Would that be indifference or tolerance? How would it impact subsequent social development? What role does fear play here?

Fourthly, is tolerance an innate quality? Can it be acquired? What is it grounded on – emotions or reason and willpower? After all, there is a great example: the USA defeated its animosity towards Afro-Americans by its reason and willpower. Today no one in the USA would say “nigger” or “blackamoor”. And this does not apply only to public domain but even to one’s thoughts. The result of such an upbringing is obvious – white people not only became more tolerant, but also elected an Afro-American president.

Such questions and answers can be posed ad infinitum. In no vain so many philosophical tractates, starting with Lock and Voltaire, have been written on tolerance; however, the debates about it still persist. Manifestations of intolerance in various social strata and in various countries are not diminishing.

In Lithuania, part of the society is still absolutely certain that we are the most tolerant in the world, that all the foreigners and confessants of different religions are wholeheartedly welcomed. Maybe yes, if we talk about a private sphere, as we lived enclosed for too long. But in a public sphere, where groups, interests and values clash, this is not the case.

Strangers and foreigners in Lithuania are increasing in number and I consider it legitimate to tell that the relations with them change. As the number of incoming people increases, the nature of their encounters, confrontations and contact with Lithuanians becomes more and more varied. These are no longer only private acquaintanceships in a street, coffee shop or lecture room (even though there are plenty of those too), but also relations with official institutions – migration services, medical and educational establishments, employment agencies, refugee camps, etc. Being honest with ourselves, let us consider whether everything is perfect there? A couple of weeks ago we read on Delfi portal that a Turk who has moved just recently but is already working in Lithuania experiences many troubles in official institutions and according to him 90 per cent of those arise because he is a Muslim. Even though he did not name the problems he encountered, limiting himself to didactic rebukes, this does sound an alarm.

Nine traditional religions are legitimised by the Constitution of Lithuania, all the citizens of Lithuania professing those have equal rights and, without a doubt, equal duties, which regrettably are discussed less and less. First of all, there is, for instance, everyone’s duty to be citizens loyal to the state as well as loyal to and tolerant of each other. For some reason, while talking about tolerance we demand that majority be tolerant of minority and forget that minority also has to be tolerant of majority or another minority. After all, both individual and group autonomy is important for everyone. As a member of a group, everyone becomes alert when their group is treated intolerantly because this also threatens their own autonomy and everyone jumps up when it is infringed. As soon as such a danger arises, tolerance ends.

Looking from a historical perspective, we will see that the first constitutions of the globe, the constitution of the USA in 1787 and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1791, and before that the Charter of Lithuania, talk about tolerance.

At that point the conception of nationhood did not exist hence it was talked about religious tolerance which was understood as a bilateral process: forbearance of the main state religion towards other religions and vice versa – main religion’s tolerance of all other religions. Only due to such tolerance for the past six hundred years in our country there coexist different religions and ethnic groups. Each of them has its autonomy but also respects the others’ right to the same autonomy.

Religion is not merely important in its own right. It was mentioned here that Judaism is not a religion but a way of life. But could we not claim the same about other religions?

After all, religion influences one’s spiritual world, behaviour, morals, cultural sphere; forms values, relationship with the world and partly with other people; and determines the understanding of one’s place in the world. On the level of everyday consciousness this is not comprehended easily, as current educational frameworks focus more on universal, social, ideological and global values. While the traditional cultural sphere formed by religion is absorbed genetically, as if hard-wired, and not always consciously comprehended even though truly existing. Human rights and freedoms, undoubtedly, are universal values; but their understanding and implementation has many specific and unique aspects, coming from different environment and partly from different religion.

 For instance, modern Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians and Scandinavians living in mainly secular societies rarely think about the fact that the differences in their behaviour and the assessment of their own self, their fate and circumstances throughout centuries were determined and formed by different religions, even if all of them were Christian. Of course one can not justify everything with religion but neither should it be entirely neglected.

Tolerance is not innate. It has to be patiently and carefully fostered. And the most important role here should be played by acquaintance with otherness (other race, other nation, other religion, other complexion, other reasoning, etc.) and the search of similarities.

Moreover, if we are willing to have a tolerant society we should invest not only into education but also in raising quality of life so that people would not be frightened that a stranger (immigrant or a representative of other nationality or religion) will threaten their wellbeing, their autonomy. If intolerance towards otherness strives in a society, the most common causes of this illness are fear of a danger and unawareness. To treat this illness one has to eliminate its causes.  There are unlikely to be any other ways.