“Poles should take an active part in the life of their country. I would really like Poles in Lithuania to be an intellectual, cultural elite, not a besieged heritage park,” Maria Przełomiec said in an interview for zw.lt. She is a famous Polish journalist who has been granted the Medal of January 13 by Dalia Grybauskaitė.
Barbara Jundo-Kaliszewska: You resided in Lithuania, met Sąjūdisu leaders and Poles in Wileńszczyzna at the beginning of the 1990s, i.e. at the time when the conflict between Polish minority and the national majority of the Republic of Lithuania was just emerging. How do you feel about that period?
Maria Przełomiec: As a correspondent of BBC Polish Section I stayed in Lithuania from January to August 1991. A lot of things were happening then, and we were observing and covering them. I remember the first ruptures among the Polish society in Lithuania very well. The Act of Reinstating Independence of Lithuania was signed by only three Polish parliamentarians. I met Poles giving sweets to Soviet soldiers by the TV Tower. On the other hand, Poles stood with Polish flag by the Lithuanian parliament waiting for the attack, the one that we all then waited for.
To what extent have the complicated geopolitical conditions, including the “defrosted” nationalism and national antagonism, had an impact on the already mentioned diversity of attitudes of the Polish society in Lithuania?
Maria Przełomiec: The “deep-frozen” for several dozen years Lithuanians came back to Smetona Lithuania, which had been founded and built based on anti-Polish resentment. I’ll just mention that at Antanas Smetona’s time it was Poland in fact that threatened Lithuania much more – more even than the Soviet Union or Germany. When in 1939 the USRR gave Vilnius back to Lithuania, only the very wise Lithuanians said: “Vilnius mūsų, Lietuva – rūsų” (trans. “Vilnius is ours, but Lithuania is Russia’s”). The rest was very pleased that the Polish “occupiers” got deprived of Wileńszczyzna. This resentment “got defrosted” at the time when Lithuania was regaining independence. On the other hand, the resentment of Poles living there was “deep-frozen” as well. They considered the Soviet occupiers to be closer to them, since, for example, they spoke the same language. The third aspect is the fault of Warsaw: Poland acknowledged the independence of Lithuania as that of some other country in turn, not even one of the first at that. I’m friends with Professor Vytautas Landsbergis. I remember him playing Čiurlionis’ “Reconciliation” for me. I met him in February 1991. He said to me then: “Maria, and my father used to say that it would be Poland…” It seems to me that it was probably the first slightly abandoned moment.
To this an attempt of some of the Polish local governments in Wileńszczyzna to establish an autonomous Polish republic was added. Let’s remember that when Vytautas Landsbergis had gone to Mikhail Gorbachev with the Act of Independence, the latter said: “But Poles are opposed to it!” Lithuanians were very afraid of Poles’ separatism. This conglomeration led to the situation that all of those factors have lied heavy on Polish-Lithuanian relations to this day. Lithuanians still treat this miserable Polish minority, that amounts to 7 percent only, as an unthought-of danger.
And how do you, as an expert, assess the Poles’ contemporary attitude in Lithuania? Are those Lithuanians’ fears reasoned?
Maria Przełomiec: It’s worth to remember that Poles are not immigrants in Lithuania. It’s the native population which, similarly to Lithuanians, can regard itself as the co-host. The problem is that for many reasons – of course it’s the fault of Lithuanian authorities partly – Poles do not feel this way. It seems to me that they still have a problem with facing the fact that the independent Lithuanian state exists indeed. The way I see it is that Poles there don’t feel like co-hosts of the free and independent Lithuania. They do feel, however, like the inheritors of Poland.
The heritage of our country is fantastic – you can just look at the Baroque of Vilnius, Polish literature, etc. However, this heritage should be a kind of a dowry which Poles introduce to Lithuanians highlighting that from this time it’s a mutual thing. It’s a legacy of the First Polish Republic which was the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Do you think that representatives of the Polish minority should draw back from their current postulates or pursue a new tactic which would be more effective?
Maria Przełomiec: Currently a struggle for Polish education in Lithuania is taking place, the one I personally approve of. However, if we fight for Polish schools, let’s fight as well for appropriate Polish language teaching in them. I go to a Polish school in a Lithuanian province and I don’t understand what the teacher says! In my opinion, it’s the main problem.
It’s absurd, however, that the solution to the problem of binomial nomenclature and names spelling issue is held over on and on. After all, Lithuanians introduced the present alphabet with Czech spelling only at the beginning of the 20th century. I have 19th-century books written in Lithuanian with Polish alphabet and published nota bene in Vilnius. So insisting on the view that writing a surname with Polish characters violates the sovereignty of Lithuania is completely inexplicable and irrational to me. Apart from that, it causes dreadful results on the other side. The effect is that at this time the leader of Electoral Action of Poles (AWPL) in Lithuania is in coalition with Russian minority, and this is yet another fault of this country. It has also introduced a specific electoral threshold (I’ll just mention that there is no such threshold for national minorities in Poland), and because of this minority parties are forced to search for allies. It is the Russian minority that became such a natural coalition partner of AWPL. It’s the second largest national minority in Lithuania. Accordingly, Poles and Russians vote the same in the Lithuanian parliament, and Lithuanians are afraid of Poles becoming a Fifth Column along with their allies. The situation is terribly hard and requires compromises on both sides.
Is there a chance to compromise? You’ve met many times with Waldemar Tomaszewski, the present leader of AWPL. What do you think about him?
Maria Przełomiec: Waldemar Tomaszewski acts in hard conditions. He should think, but more strategically. I harbour hard feelings towards him. I have made an interview with him for a serious Polish programme and asked then whether he was not afraid that he would be suspected of being pro-Russian, since he was in coalition with the Russian Alliance. Instead of responding calmly that there was such an electoral system and specific threshold in Lithuania, he started to shout at me and ask who paid me for posing such questions. We’ve known each other for a long time. There are completely no reasons to accuse me of such things. In fact, it was the situation when on 9th May he went to the Russian Embassy with the Ribbon of Saint George (Russian: Georgiyevskaya lenta; translator’s note) that was a fundamental mistake indeed. The same with, according to me, the Polish Members’ of Parliament voting in the Lithuanian parliament in reference to Boris Nemtsov issue. They voted in the same way as the Russian representatives (Ed. Note: AWPL Members of Parliament did not take part in the vote). It’s a strategic mistake. Unless they assume that it will be Russia soon in here, it is a fantastically thought-out policy. However, if we believe that we’re the citizens of Lithuanian state and that we have to act within this country – such a move is a mistake. But it’s just my opinion.
For many years now Waldemar Tomaszewski has seemed to exercise power indivisibly in Wileńszczyzna, with accordance to the time-tested principle, “one party – one leader”. In what way is it possible to influence his moves, which sometimes detract the image of the Polish minority in Lithuania?
Maria Przełomiec: The problem is that Tomaszewski is the only “distributor of goods”, i.e. the Polish minority representative whom Warsaw takes into account. People still say that he “has united Poles in Lithuania”. Polish authorities were fed up with those disputes between Ryšard Maceikianec and Michał Mackiewicz, which took place within the Association of Poles in Lithuania (ZPL) at the beginning of 2000. It’s very expedient when there is one addressee only. The embassy then has a very convenient situation as well, as it has only one representative with whom it has to talk. It shouldn’t be like that. There ought to be more support for the other representatives of the Polish community. According to me, Warsaw should cut Tomaszewski off from money. The less for Tomaszewski – the more for others. Let him remain the party leader. But at the same time we should search for new leaders among the Polish community in Lithuania.
Some time ago the Polish Discussion Club (PKD) joined in the dialogue within the Lithuanian public space. It is a group appointed by intellectuals among others, who want to bring improvement of Poles’ situation in Lithuania and relations with the state majority. How do you evaluate this initiative?
Maria Przełomiec: These are the people of whom the Polish minority should be proud and make use. There can’t be just one leader of the Polish minority, as it should be a diverse leading group. I know that it’s terribly hard. But only then Lithuanians will cease being afraid of Poles. Otherwise, the unconsidered AWPL policy will affect adversely both the Polish minority itself and Poland along with the bilateral relations. The geopolitical situation is changing and now we should care about the cooperation between the Polish and Lithuanian governments. It doesn’t mean that Polish authorities are supposed to concede and announce that problems of the Polish minority are not important. No – we should say that they are important and this is one of those things that bother us much. We ought to remember that Russians will immediately use every unfinished business in the bilateral relations. Besides, the history of the Polish-Lithuanian relations show that killing somebody with kindness also doesn’t make sense. Anyway, the postulates of the Polish minority should be the subject of a discussion, not ultimatum statements.
What nostrum should we currently apply? In what way can we heal the Polish community situation in Lithuania?
Maria Przełomiec: We should back new people, for example the ones from PKD. We can do this also by contacting Roman Mickiewicz-Gorecki, who after years of lying by got involved in actually involving Poles in the political and cultural life of contemporary Lithuania. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the current ZPL position indicates that there’s a need to create such a beleaguered fortress – beleaguered heritage park.
Poles cannot stand aside. They should take an active part in the life of their country. I would really like them in Lithuania to be an intellectual, cultural elite, not a besieged heritage park. Let’s keep maintaining our traditions – they are beautiful – but call time on Lithuanian universities. Don’t be afraid of lithuanization. Let’s defend ourselves from it by succeeding in our aims.
Maria Przełomiec – a Polish journalist, correspondent of BBC Polish Section and Telewizja Polska (Polish Television) contributor. She specialises in the former USSR countries. Since February 2007 she has hosted Studio Wschód programme. A contributor of such weekly magazines as “Polityka”, “wSieci”, “Przewodnik Katolicki”. She has been awarded the “Bene merito” honorary distinction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, Radosław Sikorski, for popularising the knowledge of Polish foreign policy conditioning; and granted the Medal of January 13 by the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė.
Tłumaczenie by Karolina Katarzyńska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Karolina Katarzyńska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.