"We want to have a self-determined, democratically legitimated Sorbian Parliament"

Hannes Wilhelm-Kel

Lusatian Alliance President

INTERVIEW. A group of Sorbs started in 2011 a citizens' initiative to push for the establishment of the Serbski Sejmik, or Sorbian Parliament, within the legal framework of federal Germany. European Free Alliance (EFA) member Lusatian Alliance party is now raising this demand at the European level. Nationalia spoke in Bautzen to Lusatian Alliance President Hannes Wilhelm-Kel on this and other Sorbian current affairs.

- The Lusatian Alliance is promoting the establishment of a Parliament for the Sorbs, a Slavic-speaking stateless nation inhabiting Lusatia. The Lusatian territory falls within the German federated states (Länder) of Brandenburg and Saxony, and both of them vow to protect the cultural and linguistic rights of the Sorbs. Why then is there a need for a Sorbian Parliament to be established?

- Sorbians never had their own Parliament, even if they have existed as a distinct people for more than 1,000 years. Power given by Brandenburg and Saxony to the Sorbian people is not enough. We are accepted as a people, but every time and everywhere wee see that it does not give us rights on self-determination. On educational, economic, cultural or ecological issues, we do not have any chance to speak with our own voice. We ask [both states] for support on those matters, but what they give us is very small.

- Who is intended the Parliament you are asking for? Only for Sorbs who self-identify as such, or rather for the larger Lusatian population, even if a part of it does not regard itself as Sorbian?

-We have changed the name of our party to "Lusatian Alliance" to show that the changes we want to implement are interesting for all people who live in Lusatia. We want a new regional policy for Lusatia. We have three languages here: German, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. And we have close neighbours here: Poland and the Czech Republic. Our Sorbian languages are a good tool to communicate with them, since all of us speak closely related Slavic languages. We can also connect with them in the economic and ecological fields, and this is interesting for all the people who live in Lusatia.

- In the two previous answers you have been quoting ecology as an important issue for the Sorbs. Indeed Lusatia is facing very serious environmental damage as lignite continues to be extracted in Lusatian open-cast mines by Swedish state-owned energy firm Vattenfall. Those operations have for years been destroying hectares of land in Lusatia. What is your party doing in this respect?

- We are filing demands against three sites where Vatenfall continues to make preparations in order to carry on with their lignite mines. We have asked the company to appoint an official spokesperson to talk with the members of the citizens' initiative against the mines. Besides, alongside the Greens-EFA group in the European Parliament we have launched an awareness campaign on the problems that coal mining is bringing to us -including both environmental and cultural destruction.

- What is your view as regards the future of both Sorbian languages? Do you believe that it is enough that they are only transmitted within Sorbian-speaking families -as it has traditionally been the case- or rather public policies should intent to teach the languages to Lusatians with German language background?

- Of course they should also be taught to Lusatians with German language background. The situation of the language is very difficult. Lower Sorbian has only 5,000 speakers left, and most of them are aged 70 or older. Upper Sorbian has 20,000 speakers, but the number is declining. We thus need to do all we can in order to save them. A good idea can be setting up personnel within official institutions -for instance governments and social institutions- who can speak both German and Sorbian. This would foster identification and acceptation of Sorbian in the whole of Lusatia.

- Let us go back to your proposal for a Sorbian Parliament. Germany is a federal country, so should we understand that, in the end, you are pushing for the creation of a new Lusatian state within federal Germany, independent from the Länder of Brandenburg and Saxony?

- At this stage we aim to establish a linguistic and cultural Parliament. Once it develops, we will see if there is a need for other directions and powers to be taken on. The most important thing at this first step is to have a self-determined, democratically legitimated Parliament of our own.

- Who will be eligible to vote for that Parliament: only those who speak Sorbian or anyone else?

- The law says those who decide to be Sorbs are Sorbs. What we say is that different criteria can be used in Lusatia to get a number of how many Sorbs are there. If you look at the ethnic background of people, their roots and other criteria, a figure of 750,000 people with Sorbian backgrounds could be reached. You can compare this to Ireland: many of the Irish people do not speak Irish, but nevertheless they are not English! So our goal is to increase the number of people who self-identify as Sorbs.

- Out of 1 million Lusatian inhabitants, only 60,000 are Sorbs...

- That is an official figure. I do not agree with it. The figure could also be calculated out of how many people has roots in this area, and then it could be up to 750,000, as I said.

- Do you have any support from outside the Lusatian Alliance in order to push for the establishment of the Sorbian Parliament?

- We have support from local governments and also from members of the Saxony and Brandenburg state parliaments. It should not be such a difficult move: Sorbs are already recognized as a people, so under international law we have the right to self-determination. I do not know how far away it is, but we want an agreement with Saxony, Brandenburg and Germany to establish our Parliament.

David Forniès