Bobryk: it is hardly possible to reach a turning point in Polish-Lithuanian relations

Adam Bobryk, fot. Piotr Tołwiński

Pragmatism has always ruled in the left wing Polish politics concerning Lithuania. Dr Adam Bobryk, who is an academic teacher at the University of Natural Sciences and Humanities in Siedlce and the Democratic Left Alliance city council member, said that left wing parties have avoided emotions and empty words in their quest to solve problems. “I believe that the victory of social democrats in Lithuania will increase the interest in Lithuania among SLD members and among other parties. Talks should be started after the elections. We can’t speak of any breaking point if there are no talks held,” said Adam Bobryk. 

During our telephone conversation you stated that you regularly take a look at the three languages versions of DELFI web page. After six months you can already try to form an opinion about PL DELFI. What do you think about it? What do you like about our web page and what would you change?

Adam Bobryk (University of Natural Sciences and Humanities in Siedlce): I rate DELFI web page highly. Because Polish version is the youngest, it must still seek wider audience. Posting more information and journalistic materials would be helpful. Russian and Lithuanian versions of the web page have a definitely better news bulletin. Undoubtedly, DELFI web page is the best electronic source of information about the current life of Lithuania. It is possible to find here not only the latest news, but also interesting analyses and titbits of information, also these including Polish life in Lithuania. Going back to what I think is lacking on the web page, there are no internet surveys. At the moment, I can express my opinion only on the Russian or Lithuanian version of the web page.

You have said that we are the best source of electronic information.  Are we winning in competition with “Kurier Wileński” or “Wilnoteka”?

The web pages of “Kurier Wileński” and “Wilnoteka” are completely different media information sources. “Kurier” is undoubtedly the most distinguished Polish medium of communication in Lithuania. This status results from its long-standing presence in the environment as well as from its engagement in activities for the Polish community.  “Kurier” has not only been a source of information, but also an institution that intervene to protect the rights of Poles.  kurierwilenski.lt is not a competition to PL DELFI in respect to the fact that the web page is focused on promoting the newspaper and encouraging to buy the print edition. “Wilnoteka” in turn focuses mainly on the Polish context. PL DELFI looks more broadly at the entire Republic of Lithuania. In some way, you are a window on Lithuania.

Now, let us move on to what awaits us in a few days. Lithuanian citizens will vote yet again during the recent months. This time it is parliamentary election. In recent years we’ve heard from Polish politicians, analytics and journalists that the October elections would be a “turning point,” a “new beginning”  and that what has not worked out during the conservative liberal majority rule will be possible in a new Parliament that will be dominated by new political forces. Should we really anticipate this “turning point”?

Any elections are hope for a change. Usually, it is assumed that it will be a change for the better. During the last term, the relationship between Poland and Lithuania has deteriorated to such an extent that it would be impossible not to expect a turning point. In Warsaw and Vilnius it was said that our relationship is “the best since Jagiełło times.” This didn’t translate into reality but suggested good will on both sides. After that period, in 2008 our relations have become significantly cooler. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski, took a very resolute attitude towards the Republic of Lithuania. However, tough rhetoric does not always mean effective action. I think that what we are now facing is the negligence from previous years when problems, accompanied by optimistic declarations, were growing rather than disappearing. We may hope that the new political situation will be a chance to solve them. Coming back to the “turning point” question. The assessment of these elections as crucial is connected with the activity of Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania,  which for the first time in history is very likely to exceed the threshold of 5%…

I was just going to ask about Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. What are the chances of exceeding the electoral threshold, increasing the representation and in consequence participating in forming a new government?

In the previous elections, a fraction of one per cent was missing to win seats from the national electoral registration. After the successful local government elections in 2011 the odds are in favour of winning the seats. Definitely, entering a maximum number of candidates in the national electoral registration and registration of 40 candidates in single-seat constituencies will have a positive effect, even in such areas as Kaunas and Klaipėda. I have a favourable opinion of the fact that the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania’s programme has many social aspects. It may attract left wing voters. And finally, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania made a move that seems to be very reasonable. They included Lithuanian and Slavic minorities representatives in their electoral register.

The idea of an alliance between Kazimira Prunskienė’s Lithuanian People’s Party and Irina Rozova’s Russian Alliance is disapproved by Lithuanians and also Warsaw. From Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania’s perspective, is it a sensible option?

National minorities have no other choice than consolidation. This alliance is an opportunity to succeed in elections of October 14. It is obvious that the Lithuanian electorate have to be attracted but let’s face it, their votes in favour of a minority party are narrow in scope. This is the case of not only Lithuania but also of other European countries. The agreement with the Russian Alliance and embracing Russian and Belarus minorities is an opportunity for additional votes. I’m not surprised that for different reasons such a move can be controversial and criticised but on the other hand, anything that the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania did would be criticised by the Lithuanian majority. Many parties, especially right wing parties, find it easier to assess the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania by pointing at the national context and identifying them as “Poles party.” The information about the alliance between Poles and Russian might motivate the nationalists electorate.

I’d like to leave the topic of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania for now and focus on the possible winners of the elections. According to surveys, since 2009 Social Democratic Party of Lithuania was the most popular one. Lately the popularity shifted to Viktor Uspaskich’s Labour Party but it can be safely assumed that the Social democrats will form a new cabinet. What can be expected of them after the elections? Will it be easier for a conservative liberal Civic Platform government to hold talks with Butkevičius’ party?

Personally, I have a sentimental attachment to the Social Democrats. I was already in touch with this party when Lithuania strove for independency and separation form the Soviet Union. I had the opportunity to participate in social democracy conventions, in a number of meetings and debates. I think that when it comes to Polish-Lithuanian relationships, the left wing has a big role to play on both sides of the boarder. Social democrats are more open to national minorities than the rest of the political parties in Lithuania. It is worth remembering that, for example, the Polish-Lithuanian treaty was formed during the rule of the Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania. Similarly, after the re-election of the left wing in the years 2006-2008, Polish minority participated in governing and a branch of University of Białystok was created in Vilnius. Of course, it has to be remembered that the practice of political life in Lithuania shows that, whether it is right or left wing’s rule, it’s difficult to count on a turning point on national or international level. Let’s remind ourselves that such projects as the law of “Great Vilnius” or the introduction of the 5% threshold for national minorities were forced through during the rule of Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania. However, for sure Lithuanian left wing is easier to hold talks with. The atmosphere is better than with the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. I think that the government of social democrats in Vilinius will not at all be a problem in Civic Platform- Polish People’s Party cabinet relations with Lithuania. It’s enough to look at the present relations between Polish right wing and Lithuanian one. It doesn’t fill with optimism. Social democrat’s taking over the power may mean a breaking point in contacts with Tusk’s government. Then the real talks will be held.

How the relations between Civic Platform and social democrats should look like?

Our relationships should be seen from the angle of minorities situation in both countries and also from the angle of economic cooperation.

In that order?

The order is an open question. However, let’s remember that the situation of the minorities in one country or another creates an atmosphere for conversation. If minorities complain on their situation or the authorities wrong approach towards them then it affects also other areas of life, including economy and regional cooperation. If we want a revival of the relations between Warsaw an Vilnius, we have to start from the minorities. This will create a good basis for dialogue. Minorities should be a bridge for cooperation. However, I think that the situation of Lithuanian minority in Poland is much better than the situation of Polish minority in Lithuania. It’s enough to recall the story of the watchtower in Puńsk, which eventually did not come into existence because of the minority and Lithuanian state’s pressure, and the restitution of the land from Vilnius district municipality that drags on to this day.

We assume that in November or December Algirdas Butkevičius will become the new Prime Minister. What would you advise, what position would you expect from the government of Donald Tusk and Radosław Sikorski?

First of all, we have to sit down to talks. If there is no dialogue between the sides, it’s difficult to talk about any braking point. Discussion through the media is a bad solution. There used to be a very good practice of frequent visits of Prime Ministers and Presidents. I think that as countries, we greatly benefited from our membership in the European Union. If, under the rule of the new Lithuanian Government, we undertake a series of joint actions within the EU and won allies over, we will have a chance to become a serious strategist in the EU. The time of insulting each other should finally come to an end. As for the Government, they are there to solve specific issues, for example issues concerning economy and energy that are still waiting their end.

We know quite a lot about Civic Platform’s position towards Lithuanian situation, we know his utterances, the actions of Donald Tusk, Bronisław Komorowski and Radosłąw Sikorski. We also know the views of the national conservative opposition gathered around the Law and Justice. However, the position of Democratic Left Alliance is somehow lost in all that…

Pragmatism has always ruled in the left wing Polish politics concerning Lithuania. Left wing parties have avoided emotions and empty words in their contacts with the neighbour countries and they focused on solving problems. Unfortunately, much to my disappointment, the left wing does not perceive Lithuania as a matter of an utmost importance in their programme. It can all change after the victory of Social Democratic Party of Lithuania and, let’s hope so, the success of the left wing in Poland. Figuratively speaking, in 1992 and 2000 Lithuania has already infused Polish left wing with optimism (at that time people were talking about so-called train from Vilnius that was supposed to bring victory for the left wing also in Poland – ed. PL DELFI). Lithuania may serve as an example for us. I believe that the victory of social democrats in Lithuania will increase the interest in Lithuania among Democratic Left Alliance members and among other parties.

I’d like to change the topic to Siedlce. You are a councillor of Siedlce and a City Council Vice President and you hold the offices for several terms now. Siedlce local government maintains contacts with Vilnius district municipality. Moreover, a branch of the “Polish Community” operates in Siedlce. How does the cooperation between the local authorities and   Lithuania look like? What is the relationship between Lithuania and the University of Natural Sciences and Humanities?

The relationship is quite good. In 1988 we made an agreement with Vilnius district municipality. We have a common history. Siedlce was once owned by the Czartoryski family and that’s where Pahonia, our coat of arms, comes from. The next stewards were the Ogiński family. It’s worth mentioning that Kazimierz Ogiński was a voivode of Vilnius and Lithuanian grand hetman. Nowadays, our great achievements are in organizing youth exchange. The Junior High School No. 3 collaborates with the Secondary School No. 1 in Nemenčinė. Students from Vilinus district municipality are coming to Siedlce and they can participate in the classes and have their holiday. Our students, in turn, go to Lithuania. It’s a great learning experience when they don’t learn about the places connected with The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth only from books but can experience them. It’s easier to understand things and to make friends. I’d like to point out that the material expression of this collaboration is naming of one of the leisure centres, Vilnius Square, in 2002. Since 1990 we have also Jagiełło street. The official exchange between local authorities is of a great importance but much more important are regular contacts between Poles and Lithuanians. There were bands from Vilnius constituency performing here. They were not only folk but also rock bands and the work of many artists was presented to us. In addition to that, many Lithuanian scholars are attending scientific conferences at the University of Natural Sciences and Humanities and among all the students there are citizens of Republic of Lithuania. It should be noticed that 130 residents of Lithuania received their degree from Siedlce University.

You dedicated your doctoral dissertation to the Poles in Lithuania (“National Rebirth of Poles in Lithuania 1987-1997”). Tell us how the situation of Polish minority has changed in 15 years since 1997?

It’s hard to describe it in a few words. First of all, the process of shrinking of Poles spatial concentration can be noticed and also the drop in the percentage of their constitution of the population structure of the country. On the other hand, the activities of Polish institutions, including the Polish Association in Lithuania and the  Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, make the assimilation process much slower. Within these 15 years there were political (the increase of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania’s electoral significance) as well as mental turning points, such as the Polish entry into the Vilnius or Warsaw ruling coalition. It turned out then , that Poles are not a boogeymen used to scare  the electorate but partners with whom communication can and should be maintained. When it comes to education, a branch of Białystok University was created. Over those 15 years there have been a number of disturbing signals such as the dispute over the “Card of the Pole,” the issue of land restitution and educational law. However, comparing the turn of the 80s and 90, and present times it has to be admitted that after 22 years of independence, there was a huge change for the better in the situation of Poles in Lithuania and in the relations between Poles and Lithuanians. During the time of regaining independence a very hostile attitude towards Poles could have been observed. In 1991 I witnessed an attempt to devastate the monument of Stanisław Moniuszko by a group of youths. Now, this atmosphere has changed. There is no strong international tension. In addition, both Poles and Lithuanians, are living in the open country. Widespread abroad trips and gaining knowledge about the world is reducing the level of xenophobia and erasing mutual dislike.

(Warszawa-Siedlce, 6.10.2012)

Adam Bobryk (born 1967 in Siedlce) – lecturer, journalist and regional civil servant connected with with Siedlce. During the time of the Polish People’s Republic he was an activist in the anti-communist opposition gathered around “Solidarity” and the Polish Socialist Party. After 1990he he was a local newspaper journalist, a politician of  Polish Socialist Party and  a researcher from the University of Podlasie. He is employed as an assistant professor in the Department of History of Political Thought at Institute of Social Sciences and Security at the University of Siedlce. He is also the university’s press spokesman. In 2002 he defended his doctoral dissertation dedicated to Lithuania under the title of “National Rebirth of Poles in Lithuania 1987-1997.” Since 1994, on the recommendation of the Democratic Left Alliance, he continuously holds a mandate of Siedlce councillor. For six years now, he is Vice-President of the City Council. He works for Polish Sociological Association, Belarusian Historical Society, Polish Philosophical Society and for Siedlce Learned Society. His academic achievements are over 130 scientific publications, 33 of which are dedicated to Lithuania. He is an editor or co-editor of 15 joint publications. He is also a co-author of  “The Orthodox Church in Siedlce,”and “Traces of the past. History and present times of  the Orthodox Church in the south-western region of Podlasie kept in the public consciousness.”

Source: http://pl.delfi.lt/opinie/opinie/bobryk-trudno-liczyc-na-radykalny-przelom-w-relacjach-polsko-litewskich.d?id=59740761

Tłumaczenie Monika Rak w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Monika Rak the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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