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Eastern Europe: Language Group Turns Its Attention To Minority Languages (Part 2)

The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL) is planning a major drive to expand its activities in Central and East Europe. That coincides with the admission into the European Union of 10 states from the region in 2004. EBLUL is a nongovernment organization that works on behalf of those in the EU who speak minority languages. It says there is much to be done to help the 20 million people who speak minority languages in Central and East Europe. But in some cases, the work will be politically delicate, such as in the Baltic republics. In this second of two articles, RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the situation.

Prague, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL) is planning a major push into Central and Eastern Europe in line with the EU's expansion there in 2004.

The Brussels-based nongovernmental organization is committed to preserving languages, like Occitan or Sorbian, that are threatened with extinction.

But the organization is also active in helping to protect the rights of any minority linguistic group -- such as the Russian minority in Latvia -- even in cases where the survival of the language is not in question.

With these objectives in mind, the EBLUL is planning to set up member-state committees in all of the new EU countries to represent the interests of some 20 million minority-language speakers. EBLUL Secretary-General Markus Warasin says:

"Our plan is now to meet next year in Bozen in South Tyrol, in Italy, and to invite as many contacts as we have in the enlargement countries, and start there with the setting up of the member state committees."

Warasin says the work of EBLUL is at its most delicate where there are tensions between the linguistic communities, such as the case in Latvia, where Russian speakers make up some 40 percent of the population. Warasin says:

"Although if you look at it from a global context, Russian is of course not a lesser-used language. If you compare it with Latvian -- which will become an official language of the European Union. But since minority protection and the promotion of lesser-used languages is the competence of member states of the European Union, you have to look at it from the view of state borders, so that if you look at it from inside Latvia, Russia will be a lesser-used language."

That means Russian speakers from the Baltic republics will have a place at EBLUL's table. As Warasin says, the bottom line concerns human beings, in that for instance thousands of people in those republics are at present receiving electricity bills in a language they cannot understand.

As to other languages, Warasin goes onto say: "A community which is of huge importance are the Hungarians, for example, in Romania, in Slovenia, in Slovakia; so there are several languages like this which have millions of speakers. And there are, of course, others like the Sorbs where you have small communities. For example, you have a very small community of Italians in Slovenia."

EBLUL President Bojan Brezigar cautions against thinking that Eastern Europe is necessarily worse than Western Europe in its treatment of language minorities. He says there are failures and successes on both sides: "I hope we shall start to speak of 'one Europe' from next year, up till now we used to make a lot of distinctions between East and West. I would say from my point of view there are situations in the west where a minority language situation has been well resolved, as well as in the east."

If national committees are established in all 10 of the expected new EU member states, the number of people represented by EBLUL will grow by 20 million to 60 million people across 25 countries.