“The Polish Discussion Club is not an electoral committee or even an alternative political force. We think of ourselves as a platform for discussion. Supporters and members of EAPL [Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania] come to our meetings as well as opponents. The Club was created in order to underline the importance of dialogue. It was not created for political reasons. The purpose of the Club is to create a platform for exchanging opinions and introducing alternative strategies in order to, among others, solve existing problems of the Polish minority in Lithuania, improve its public image, not to create political alternatives”. This is what Artur Zapolski, a political scientist from Vlinius who is a president of the Club since December 2014 said in an interview with Wnet Radio’s Baltic Programme [Program Bałtycki Radia Wnet]. “A situation in which a national minority becomes hostage of international relations is a dangerous phenomenon. Here I would like to refer to Lithuania. I believe that it is necessary to distance ourselves from erroneous thinking about and treating the Poles in Lithuania. I think that it is fallacious to regard them as representatives of the Republic of Poland. Members of the Polish minority in Lithuania are Lithuanian citizens and they should be treated as such by the Lithuanian elites. Not through the prism of relations with Poland”, he added.
Tomasz Otocki, Wnet Radio’s Baltic Programme: The Polish Discussion Club exists in Vilnius for five months. There has been five meetings about diverse topics – the rights of minorities, Polish culture in Lithuania, Russian propaganda in Polish media or even specialist ones like energy policy. It can be said that the Club has a steady circle of attendants – wilniuk’s [Vilnius citizens of Polish ethnicity]. It is estimated that there are around 30 to 50 regulars on every meeting but new people also come. Unfortunately, what has been noticed by the bloggers, “trolls” also show up. I would like to ask you, a new president of the Club in the 2015 winter-spring period, to briefly summarize its activity. What did you think of the Club during the time of its forming and after a reality check? What things were accomplished and what needs to be worked on? What is the current outcome of the Clubs work?
Artur Zapolski, the Polish Discussion Club: Without any doubt five months of activity of an organisation like that is not much. Nonetheless, I think that the first season of the Club can be considered as a good start. It is true that since the beginning of our work we have encountered resistance and critique from certain communities, especially anonymous. But, to a greater extent, we have felt the wilniuks’ support and sincere enthusiasm. Increasing interest in the Club and its surging recognisability are the results of its five months of work. Our discussions are being publicized not only by the Polish media but also by the Lithuanian ones. Generally speaking, we, the Poles in Lithuania, lacked a similar initiative. I am talking about a bottom-up initiative available for anyone interested.
Going back to the original ideas about the Club…
I have heard about the idea of creating a platform for discussion a year before the establishment of the Club and I envisioned that such platform will contribute to activation of civil society among the Poles in Lithuania. I still view it as such. As an essential initiative, but above all as a platform for discussion based not on hostility but on dialogue. This is why we also invite representatives of political and cultural elites to our meetings. To promote the need for dialogue and point out the existence of different opinions. Finally to stress that solving ethnic minority issues lies within range of interests of Lithuania. We still need to thoroughly work on this matter. We perfectly understand that those are not simple issues. We would not talk about them if it were otherwise. Therefore, we will strive to make this platform, which we create, serve wider interests of Lithuanian society of which we are an integral part.
What plans as the Polish Discussion Club do you have for the upcoming months? Who would you like to invite to your meetings, to what communities would you like to refer? What topics will dominate the next meeting? Does the base of supporters of the Club widens and do you encounter any resistance?
We do not complain about the lack of ideas, and the ones we already have will most certainly suffice for the whole spring season. Against all resistance and critique, the recognisability of the Club is constantly surging and with it the circle of people who appreciate our efforts and want to cooperate. We are open for propositions. Anyone can present own ideas after the end of the official part of the meeting or in any moment through social media. While making plans for the upcoming months we tried to consider the need for widening the spectrum of topics and implementation of new forms of activity.
Upcoming meetings will be about the most urgent matters, such as elections for the Mayor of Vilnius which will take place on the 1st of March, as well as important historical events like, for example, the 25th anniversary of regaining independence by Lithuania and the liberum veto anniversary. We also plan to talk about education, politics of memory, demography and, above all, about assimilation trends. Also, we will not forget about culture. Outgoing session will be a novelty in the spring season.
Can you tell what will the outgoing session be about?
We want to take the Club outside Vilnius. This was mentioned on many occasions by my predecessor, Mariusz Antonowicz. We want to arrange meetings in the countryside or organise them in the form of said travelling sessions. This will allow the members of the Club to get to know each other better, integrate. We are still thinking about the final form of the excursion. In the beginning we would like to organise a trip to Upytė, a village situated in the northern part of Lithuania. Władysław Siciński, a Polish nobleman was its owner in the seventeenth century. He used liberum veto as one of the first. There, we plan to explore the village with a professional historian and conduct a meeting about liberum veto and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
I would like once again to come back to politics. On the next Thursday the Club will again talk politics because of Mykolas Majauskas and Gintautas Paluckas. The first one is a conservative Homeland Union’s candidate for the Mayor of Vilnius office and the second one is a social-democrat running for the city’s steward office. Accusations appeared in the Internet that the Club invited the representatives of only two parties, who have no chance in advancing to the second round to a pre-election debate. Did you consider inviting Waldemar Tomaszewski and the present Mayor of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas, who has the biggest chance for re-election, to the table? Did those candidates refuse, had no time? Or maybe the EAPL leadership programmatically does not come to the meetings despite the invitations?
I will not hide that we would like to include Artūras Zuokas, Waldemar Tomaszewski and also Remigijus Šimašius into the discussion. In such way we would gather five most significant candidates. Initially all candidates expressed the willingness to participate in the meeting organised by the Club but the date was not suitable for Šimašius and Tomaszewski. We hope that this was not a dodge and it will not be the last meeting with the candidates for the Mayor of Vilnius office in the Polish Discussion Club. In the meanwhile it is too early to talk about systematic ignoring the Club’s invitations. We are still talking with the Zuokas’ staff and we hope that he will join Majauskas and Paluckas on the closest Thursday.
As for those two candidates mentioned above with whom we will be talking, among others, about solving the ethnic minority issues, they are members of the biggest parties of the Lithuanian political scene. I would not dare to neglect them. Also, one should not forget that the conservative electorate is mobilised and usually very active. Additionally, Waldemar Tomaszewski’s participation might intensify the activity of the electorates of both parties. Therefore it can be said that even if none of them wins the election, at least one of the parties will co-run Vilnius after. This is why it is worth knowing what to expect from them.
Let’s get away from Lithuania now. You are interested, as a linguist and political scientist, in Slovenia, therefore I need to ask about this country. It is a positive example for many countries fighting for equality of rights. The Italians and Hungarians acquired almost every right as a community that was available. The right of those two aforementioned minorities are guaranteed by the constitution. There are: a political permission to use the mother tongue in the minority districts, financial support for the minorities from the state’s side or, last but not least, guaranteed seats in the Parliament. The politicians also talk more friendly about the ethnic minorities. Did you try to compare the Slovenian discourse about the ethnic minority rights with the Lithuanian one? What is the result of such comparison? What needs to be done in Lithuania to make ethnic minority rights a reality?
Things you said about the rights of Italian and Hungarian minorities are undoubtedly true. What is more, both diasporas have the right to bilingual documents, topographical names (street), the “double” right to vote and, apart from the representatives in the Parliament, which have the right to veto when it comes to accepting laws about the constitutional rights of those minorities, they also chose a vice-mayor and a tenth of representatives for the local institutions. They have those rights independently from their numbers. But if one looks closely on the situation of the ethnic minorities in this country, without negating Slovenia’s achievements, it will turn out that the matter is more complicated.
What is the problem then?
Not going into detail, but at the same time not being groundless I would risk a statement that the rights of ethnic minorities in Slovenia are executed inconsistently, even selectively. Firstly, because the rights of other ethnic minorities, such as Serbs, Croatians or Bosnians are not guaranteed by the constitution. The representatives of those minorities do not have the same rights as the Italian or Hungarian ones. It sounds paradoxically, especially because those three minorities are more numerous. It is estimated that the Serbs constitute about 2% of the overall inhabitants of Slovenia while the Italians constitute only 0,11%. Legislatively it is explained, that those two privileged minorities are “indigenous ethnic minorities” (avtohtoni manjšini) that have lived in this area for centuries. This term is used in opposition to other minorities, with the exception of the Romani, which are defined as “new” or “modern” (novodobne manjšine). It is not entirely true. For example, orthodox Serbs have inhabited Bela Krajina (south-eastern region of Slovenia) since a few centuries and the Croatians have lived in the territories around the border. Secondly, one should not forget about the inconsistency with abiding the Romani rights or the case of so called “erasure” (izbrisani) of about 25 thousand citizens of former Yugoslavia, which were left without citizenship after Slovenia became independent.
If the Serbs inhabited a part of Slovenia for many centuries why didn’t they acquire corresponding rights? Is it because the “hiccup after Yugoslavia” in which the Slovenians felt dominated?
When talking about the Serbian community it needs to be pointed out that it consists of the Serbs who lived here for many generations but also from those who came from Serbia, firstly because of economic reasons and secondly because of the Yugoslav Wars. Same thing applies to the Croatians and Bosnians. Those groups who lived in Slovenia for many generations did not, however, with the exception of certain villages, create dense agglomerations. A fact that also seems important is that every community living in Slovenia had identical rights no matter from which republic of former Yugoslavia it came until the proclamation of independence.
Therefore it would seem that the answer to your question lies not in the lack of “nativeness” of some of the ethnic minorities but in the political will. I think that this is, above all, a problem of political nature. Undoubtedly, historical events contributed to the issue of Serbian minority being politically incorrect in some sense.
Nonetheless, not giving rights to the Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian minorities is becoming more of a problem. Those communities are gaining more awareness about their rights, are more organised and also have a big support of their mother countries.
Croatia, and since a few years ago also Serbia, are trying to acquire minority rights to such diasporas. This results in tensions in the Zagreb – Ljubljana and Belgrade – Ljubljana relations. By invoking the principle of mutuality, the Croatian government at the times of the president Tuđman revoked the constitutional minority rights from the Slovenian minority. This deed was, fortunately, cancelled.
The fact that there were disputes even in the matters of the Italian minority proves that the minority issues became political. Propositions to limit the rights of the Italian minority appeared within the Slovenian political elites because Italy was not giving the same rights to the Slovenian minority.
As one can see, the situation in which a national minority becomes the hostage of the international relations is a dangerous phenomenon. Here I would like to refer to Lithuania. I believe that it is necessary to distance ourselves from erroneous thinking about and treating the Poles in Lithuania. I think that it is fallacious to regard them as representatives of the Republic of Poland. Members of the Polish minority in Lithuania are Lithuanian citizens and they should be treated as such by the Lithuanian elites. Not through the prism of relations with Poland.
When it comes to Slovenia, I understand that you, as a scientist, support the idea of giving the minority right to the Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians. A similar discussion is taking place in Lithuania. Polish law clearly distinguishes national and ethnic minorities (for example, Belarussians, Lithuanians or Germans) from the communities which came to the country in the twentieth century (for example, Vietnamese people). Czech law does not provide such distinction. In Lithuania they say: “we are constantly talking about the Polish minority rights while Azerbaijanis and Georgians do not have any problems with Lithuania”. Do you think that making the minorities which live in a certain area for generations and which often are a majority in particular district or region equal with the groups which came after 1945 is right? Are the small national groups that came to Soviet Lithuania an alibi for the politicians for not solving the problems of the Poles and Belarussians?
Slovenia is a part of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities since 1998, while Lithuania since 2000. If I recall correctly the Convention does not distinguish national minorities which traditionally live in a certain area from those who inhibit a certain region in significant numbers.
Nonetheless, I think that the status of one national minority should not be dependent from the status of another one. It is not about making the rights of different nationalities equal in such a way that the rights of one minority, for example the Polish minority in Lithuania are reduced on account of others, for example the newcomers from Azerbaijan and Georgia. One must remember about the level of social awareness. However, it is incorrect to make the rights of national minorities conditional on politics and historical animosities.
To put it briefly, regulation of the minority issues in no way endangers the independence of the state but proves its political maturity.
Going back to the Discussion Club… You are often viewed as an initiative in opposition to the official Polish organisations including EAPL. Members of the EAPL attacked the Club through the l24.lt portal. How do you cope with such an opinion? I know that many of the Club sympathizers would fancy a creation of a political environment that is independent from EAPL. However, it is unrealistic when considering the 5% threshold in elections, unless, the Lithuanian parties will finally and truly begin to fight for the Polish electorate. Do you see such possibility? Are there any Lithuanian parties which could realistically support the fight for minority rights or is it all just empty promises before local elections?
I do not entirely understand why are we viewed as such if we never positioned ourselves like that. Maybe it is because for a long time no Polish bottom-up initiative, independent from EAPL or APL [Association of Poles in Lithuania] was made in Vilnius and some of the members of mentioned organisations weaned off from acting under citizen control circumstances. Those attacks and accusations probably come from that. Lately there are more and more such initiatives and it seems that the situation is slowly changing. The will of creating a political environment that is independent from EAPL that you mentioned only proves that the Polish society in Lithuania is not so unanimous as it is usually presented.
The Polish Discussion Club is not an electoral committee or even an alternative political force. We think of ourselves as a platform for discussion. Supporters and members of EAPL come to our meetings as well as opponents. The Club was created in order to underline the importance of dialogue. It was not created for political reasons. The purpose of the Club is to create a platform for exchanging opinions and introducing alternative strategies in order to, among others, solve existing problems of the Polish minority in Lithuania, improve its public image but not to create political alternatives.
It seems to me that the slow change of attitude towards national minority issues can be observed in the Lithuanian political elites. But they still lack the courage and consistency to make a gesture in favour of the ethnic minorities. Not only through words but also actions. Maybe the meetings and discussions in our Club, to which the Lithuanian politicians willingly agree, will contribute to speeding up those processes and breaking barriers.
Thank you for the interview.
Tłumaczenie by Marcin Wus w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Marcin Wus within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.