- November 4, 2013
„I know even less about Lithuania than about China” – relations between Poland and Lithuania after the success of Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania
Out of all Polish neighbours, Lithuania seems to be the least known. Today, even though we are connected by a process of a united national creation lasting few hundred years, Poles may confidently repeat after one of the characters from poem Dziady (Fore fathers’ Eve) by Adam Mickiewicz: „I know even less about Lithuania than about China”. Meanwhile, as we were reminded lately by Polish ambassador Jarosław Czubiński in Vilnius, there are strange things being born out of the ignorance.
It was exactly one year ago, when the elections for the Lithuanian Parliament took place. In Poland, those elections were considered as a ground-breaking. As a result of elections, which happened in two rounds of voting (respectively in 13 and 28 October), for the first time in history, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania has crossed the electoral threshold.
The time of Polish party success, was exactly the time when the relationship between Poland and Lithuania was very hard. It has been about three years from now, since it is being told about an open conflict between Vilnius and Warsaw. This situation is a result of strife between Lithuanian country and its Polish nationality citizens. It was Electoral Action of Poles election success and its participation in the government coalition that made Lithuanian citizens of Polish nationality believe that this relationship may recover (Polish grouping joined the left-of-centre coalition building the Algiridas Butkevičius government). Even though it is too early for summation, it is worth to make diagnosis about the current situation and try to reach the answer for the primary question – has there anything changed in the relations between Poland and Lithuania?
The catalogue of problems seems to be well-known. Out of many disputable points which concern Polish minority, it is advisable to distinguish three. Those are: preservation of Polish educational system, denationalisation of land and language issues (the possibility to use the original surname spelling in documents and the implementation of bilingual information boards on territory inhabited by Polish citizens). Although those are the problems which has been publicized for many years, the permanent and satisfying for both sides solution has not been found yet. The presence of Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania in Lithuanian government was supposed to be an indication for major changes. Did it happen? The most advanced are works concerning new bill, which touches upon the problems of minorities and is supposed to regulate the usage of bilingual information boards on territory inhabited by Polish citizens (in practice it would concern Poles). However, there is no guarantee if this bill will be accepted in such form by parliament or signed by president Dalia Grybauskaitė. The contrary voiced form coalition party are being heard and the exact position of prime minister is unknown. Nevertheless, it has been shown more than once that the president is rather reluctant to Polish minorities’ demands. As it is getting closer to president’s election (in May next year), the position of Mrs President may get even more stiff. Especially, if she is not certain to win the election regardless the huge popularity. The nationalistic electorate voices may tip the scales.
The passage of educational law in the previous parliament term of office was accompanied by the demonstrations of Polish community. It entered into force caring a unification of the exams in both Lithuanian and ethnic minorities schools. By virtue of Minister of Education decision, the students from schools for ethnic minorities were granted exemptions. However, the Lithuanian Supreme Administrative Court found it inconsistent with constitution and the present head of educational resort announced that students will pass the normalized exam next year.
When it comes to spelling surnames in passports, the edict of Constitutional Court is applied. According to it, the alternative version of the surname is allowed to be written anywhere besides the page with personal details. This particular problem goes beyond the Polish community because it concerns also Lithuanian girls accepting their foreigner husband names or foreigners inhabiting Lithuania. The issue concerning the restoration of land is now in dead end. In order to resolve those intricacies, the change in law is necessary, which rests on political decisions requiring good will and readiness to compromise.
The History which Divides
Poland and Lithuania are also disunited by other problems, which goes beyond the current politics and touch upon the evaluation of historical events. The differences concerning the mutual past mainly involving the events of past century. Disputes between Poles and Lithuanian applies also to the previous events, but those ones are being set by small group of specialists. The repetition of symbolic judgement over the so-called traitor of Lithuania, Jagiełło (which took place in 1930 at the station in Koszedary), should not be expected. The thing which divides us in the first place, is the evaluation of Vilnius seizure by the general officer Żeligowski insurgent forces in 1920. For Lithuanian it was a start of the “occupation of Vilnius region” which lasted till the end of World War II.
The annexation of the historical capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which was inhabited at that time mostly by Poles and Jews, and only in small amount by Lithuanians) led to severance of all official relations and was renewed in 1938 by the effect of Polish ultimatum. The source of many misunderstandings and charges is the period of the Second World War and an operations of the Home Army in Vilnius. It is sometimes presented in Lithuanian historiography as an murderous organization. Poles responds with demands to account for the participation of Lithuanian auxiliary formations in the crime which took place in Ponary near Vilnius. 100 thousand victims were murdered there. Most of them were Jews.
As long as some events remain emotional, the other ones evaluates, which is seen, at least in intellectual environments, in case of the “occupation” of Vilnius. Although the term “occupation” is still used officially, the demands for Polish apology are decreasingly being heard. It happens due to the fact that the historical voices are being heard (i.a. Prof. Šarūnas Liekis opinion) highlighting the complexity of the posture and conditions of that time and the impossibility to achieve the “black and white” judgement of those events.
A question about the “autonomy” of Vilnius region remains. It was an unsuccessful project forced by some of the Polish minority leaders on the turn of 80s and 90s, when Lithuania started to elicit independence. An attempt to create autonomous region on lands inhabited by Polish was, with no doubt, a project guided from Moscow. This attempt came to nought and its promoters became a part of the very centre of the underclass. None of the commonsense politicians who represents Polish minority in Lithuania doesn’t relive this idea today. Nevertheless, from time to time, “autonomy” or so-called “separatism” came back in Lithuanian journalism as a bogy to Polish demands. Not only vestigial politics, but also representatives of intelligence, threaten with alleged Polish separatism. It was done recently by the dean of philology department of Uniwesytet Wileński, doctor Antanas Smeton.
THE ORGANIC WORK
Task, which stands before Poles and Lithuanian, is to surmount nescience, prejudices and stereotypes. Outcomes of the up-to-date researches of the Institute of Public Affairs proves that there are many various false imaginations and schemes in Polish-Lithuanian relationship. On the other hand, there is a lack of real knowledge and the will to mutual cognition. But in was in the 90s when Poland followed sociopolitical reactions in Lithuania diligently. Suffice it to say that the leading media had constant correspondents in Vilnius. Today, if the attention of Polish public opinion concentrates on Lithuania, it happens with connections to problems of Polish minority.
It seems like Polish media cannot strike its “happy medium” in the way they inform about Lithuania – on the one hand they concentrate on topics relevant to Polish minority, but on the other hand, they are completely not interested in Lithuania as such. It is hard to find in Polish media the “neutral” informations even about cultural occasions. Of course, the trade in intellectual or artistic professions appears, the visits of men of letters and scientists happens, and the common forums of dialogue operate. Although university students are concerned about Polish-Lithuanian subject area, this initiatives doesn’t have much repercussion in media. Professions working on Lithuanian subject area and functioning in various facilities, seems like a little bit too atomized. There is a lack of interdisciplinary diffusion of ideas and concepts.
However, the improvements concerning the atmosphere and appeasement of spirits between the Poland and Lithuania is an advantage of past few months. There is a little less aggressive rhetoric and demands on both sides. Radicals subsided or have been marginalized. It is hard to say whether it is an effect of the AWPL (Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania) participation of in government. Perhaps it is a natural need of abreaction after a long period of disputes and mutual charges. In that conditions it is easier to create a real dialogue and taking initiatives, which simplify mutual cognition and understanding.
Dominik Wilczewski – born in 1983 in Warsaw, alumnus of political sciences at the University of Warsaw and an employee of public administration. He is interested in Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Belarussian relationships. The author of blog polska-litwa.blogspot.com.
Tłumaczenie by Beata Kanadys w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Beata Kanadys within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.