• October 3, 2014
  • 226

The Polish Debate Club. “During last 25 years, nothing has changed”

Lithuanian anti-Polish stereotypes and ultimatum policy hinder the improvement of the relations between Poland and Lithuania that were established in the interwar period,” said Antanas Valionis, the former Ambassador of Lithuania in Poland and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania during the first discussion organised by the Polish Debate Club.

The diplomat was sorry to say that although years go by, the mentality of Poles in Lithuania and Lithuanians has not changed much. On the one hand, Lithuanian politicians, especially those elected in one-mandate electoral districts, refuse to support projects favourable for national minorities because they are afraid of the loss of votes of voters with anti-Polish attitude. “On the other hand, when I see a leader that resigns from a high Polish commendation but wears the Ribbon of St George, I understand that during last 25 years, nothing has changed in the awareness of both Poles and Lithuanians,” said the Ambassador A. Valionis.

30 people came to the first discussion in the Polish Debate Club. The discussion was devoted to the perspectives of Polish-Lithuanian relations after the change of government in Poland, which shows that it is not true that such discussions are not needed. The majority of participants were young Poles from Vilnius and neighbourhood that represent different beliefs, from national to liberal. The discussion took place in the Lithuanian Catholic Academy of Science, where prof. Paulius V. Subačius welcomed all the people and expressed the hope that thanks to the co-operation with such initiatives like the Polish Debate Club, the Academy will become an institution that unites not only Lithuanians but also all other nationalities that live in Lithuania.

From “strategic partnership” to “cold peace”

The lecture hall of the Lithuanian Catholic Academy of Science is a very symbolic place. Before war, there was the room of the Blessed Bishop of Vilnius Jerzy Matulewicz who met Poles and Lithuanians there and tried to reconcile Poles with Lithuanians in very hard times. We hope that his example will be the inspiration for all of us and there will be respect and no insulting and hatred in our discussions,” said the president of the Polish Debate Club Mariusz Antonowicz. The discussion was moderated by Andrzej Pukszto PhD and although it gathered people of different beliefs, it was without conflicts in spite of the fact there there were points of dispute.

Antanas Valionis in a bit lenghty but with many nice anecdotes performance, presented the history of relations between Poland and Lithuania. He said how the concept of “strategic partnership”, of which he was one of the creators, was created and what opposition in Lithuania it has faced. In the opinion of the diplomat, the relations with Warsaw were friendly when Lithuania with the help of Polish protection, wanted to join NATO and the European Union. “Then we thought that we have to act as it should be and when we have already joined NATO and EU we thought that now we will do what we want (…). The list of on nasty nasty acts is long on both sides,” said A. Valionis.

In his opinion the relations between Poland and Lithuania got cold because on the one hand, Lithuania did not fulfill the commitments from bilateral agreements and international commitments connected with national minority rights and Poland started to talk in the ultimatum language. “I sometimes joke that a diplomat is a person who will think ten times before he/she will not say anything. The worst is when diplomats get involved in politics and use international relations for the PR within domestic actions. Unfortunately, it often happens in Poland and Lithuania,” said A. Valionis. At the same time, the Ambassador emphasised that in most fields, the Polish-Lithuanian co-operation develops well but Lithuanian expects from the new Polish government the continuation of all strategic energy production projects that will let not only Lithuania but also Latvia and Estonia be independent of Russia. Undoubtedly, the change of rhetorics could contribute to the success of Lithuanian politicians that try to solve the problems of the original spelling of names and surnames and bilingual signs.

A. Valionis emphasised that expectations on both sides are different. For Poland, the priority are Polish minority rights. For Lithuania, economic issues and energy security are more important. “Without Poland, Lithuania will not be able to fully integrate with Europe,” said the diplomat.

Education, names, bilingualism

Like every Polish-Lithuanian discussion, also this one was dominated by the topic of the act on national minorities, the spelling of names and surnames and bilingualism. “Which problems should be solved by the act on national minorities? In my opinion, three of them: education, the spelling of names and bilingual signs. Moreover, a very important issue is the finish of the process of the giving back land in Vilnius Region,” said Valionis. The diplomat emphasised that the law does now accept bilingual signs and it has to be respected. “But in my opinion it is a bad regulation and it has to be changed (…) By bilingual signs, Lithuania will be enriched,” said the former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In April 2010, Lithuanian Parliament rejected the Bill on names. Currently, there are discussions in Parliament about another bill that is supposed to solve this problem. “Now we deal with it more professionally. We do not want the situation to repeat again. We talk with every member of Parliament separately, we look for arguments and convince. I am sure today that the majority of social democrats, that they belong to, will support this bill. The situation of Labour Party is more complicated but we hope for the votes of more or less the half of the members of this party and we talk with the rest. Similarly, we talk with the opposition. We hope that our bill will be supported by Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. I always thought that a name is not a matter of language but the matter of identity. Even if it is the matter of language, it is the Polish language in the case of Polish names so the name of a Pole should be written according to Polish language rules,” said the diplomat. Unfortunately, stereotypes are the obstacle in taking an approving decision. „Ressentiments are very deep because the Lithuanian awareness was shaped as anti-Polish in the interwar period. Russia was a friend because under the agreement of 1920, Russia gave all that we wanted: Vilnius, Lida and Grodno. In addition, there was also the rebel of Żeligowski, the Republic of Central Lithuania, which are compared to Krym today,” explained the arguments of the opponents of „w” the Ambassador.

The participants of the discussion were very active. Many questions were asked about the railway connection between Vilnius and Warsaw and joint energy production projects, the possibility to create a common Polish-Lithuanian history textbook. During the discussion, a question about what is Valionis’ opinion of ministers and deputy ministers delegated by Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. The Ambassador assessed the work of Jarosław Narkiewicz as the Minister of Energy as very positive. In his opinion, it is a very talented politician and he follows his career and supports him since the time of Narkiewicz’s traineeship in the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in Warsaw. „In the Ministry of Culture, Edward Trusewicz did very professional work. It is a pity that he is no longer there. In the Ministry of Culture,Trusewicz was not responsible national minorities but for the Lithuanian language so language purists that do not want the original spelling of Polish names and surnames, entrusted names to a Pole,” joked A. Valionis. He emphasised that he did not have much contact with other ministers.

Polish television as the antidote for Russian propaganda

During the discussion, issues connected with information wars were raised. The participants wanted to know the Ambassador’s opinion on the idea of Russian-language television directed to Russia, Belarus and Russian-language inhabitants of Baltic countries. “There have been such ideas since a long time. I do not know if they are good or bad. In my opinion, the resources that we already have should be used. There is experienced television, radio, media teams that could deal with counter-propaganda. When facing information wars and Russian propaganda, it is hard to find balanced opinion. In the past, I was the supporter of the ban on the retransmissions of Russian television that propagandises but today I think that we should raise our society to make it more resistant to propaganda,” said the diplomat. The Minister also approved of the idea of the participants of the discussion that the antidote for Russian propaganda could be retransmission from Polish television.

People were insisting that he should say when Lithuanian Parliament will at last solve Polish problems. Valionis aswered sincerely, “You want me to tell a concrete date but I cannot do it. I simply do not want to predent a prophet or become a fortune teller. I am even not a member of Parliament and I do not intend to be. I am a diplomat. But if you ask me if there are reasons to be optimistic about this issue, I will say: yes, I believe that those problems will be solved. Solved sooner or later.”

The discussion was in Lithuanian language but A. Valionis said at the beginning that he will reply in Polish if there will be such a need. At the end of the discussion, the diplomat congratulated all debaters on the fact that they speak Lithuanian without an accent. “I hope that I will be able to present my Warsaw accent to you next time,” promised Antanas Valionis.

Translated by Marta Wojtowicz within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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