Ethnic street signs raise old tensions over identity in Lithuania

Wed Sep 21, 2016 12:46pm EDT
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By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) - The Lithuanian language sign in Vilnius's former Jewish quarter reads "Jewish Street" and below hangs a Hebrew version, with Star of David. Not far away, in Cyrillic letters, is the plaque announcing Russia Street, and then there is Warsaw Street.

A rash of new foreign language signs has appeared in Vilnius's narrow thoroughfares honouring ethnic minorities that have inhabited the city, not least a Jewish community destroyed by Nazi occupiers. But government is determined to banish them in a dispute mirroring tension over the Baltic state's identity.

Lithuania's battle for independence from Moscow, culminating in a failed Soviet Army bid to crush secessionists in 1991, raised questions of ethnic and cultural identity suppressed over decades of Soviet rule.

"All these plaques are to celebrate our diversity," Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius told Reuters as he unveiled a street sign in Hebrew and Yiddish.

But some still view neighbouring Russia and Poland with suspicion. Both occupied parts of what is today Lithuania in the 20th century. Before the war Vilnius - Wilno to give it its Polish name, Vilna in the days of Russian imperial rule - was a part of northeast Poland.

The government representative in Vilnius region Vilda Vaiciuniene said the plaques violated a law requiring all official names to be in Lithuanian, and must be removed.

"It looks like we will have to go to court over this," Vaiciuniene told Reuters.

Lithuania has long experienced tensions with its vocal and politically-united Polish minority, which makes up around 7 percent of its population. Ethnic Poles protested in 2014 when they were told to remove street signs in their language because of the same law.   Continued...

A man walks past Tatar street signs in Lithuanian and Tatar languages in Vilnius, Lithuania, September 20, 2016. Picture taken September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Andrius Sytas