• January 15, 2015
  • 204

Poland towards Lithuania. Let the Big Brother calm down.

Poles in Lithuania vote either on “their own”, or “against” Lithuanians. An interview with publicist Aleksander Radczenko by Ewa Wołkanowska-Kołodziej.

These are the lyrics of the unofficial anthem of the Polish minority in Lithuania (sang in the style of disco polo): “We Poles from Vilnius region, we are many here, we don’t live in a foreign land, this is our motherland here!” Many stands for 200,000 people, which constitutes 6,6% of the almost 3,000,000 population of Lithuania. Poles live mainly in the Vilnius region and in the Šalčininkai district. In Vilnius every 5th person is Polish. The majority of children attends 55 Polish schools or 28 mixed ones (Polish-Russian, Polish-Lithuanian, Polish-Russian-Lithuanian). There are masses performed in Polish in almost every church in the Vilnius region.

After the restoration of Lithuanian sovereignty in 1990, Poles living in Lithuania struggle with four major problems.

The return of land. Polish people have the biggest problems with reclaiming the more attractive lots. Since 1997, when Lithuanian government permitted the “transfer” of the right to reclaimed land from one locality into another (i.e. a hectare of the forest in the middle of the country may be exchanged for a hectare of land located by the lake), in Vilnius and in the Vilnius region there are no lots for the legitimate owners, mainly Poles.

The spelling of surnames. In 1998, Pole Michal Klečkovski turned to Lithuanian authorities to get the permission to use Polish spelling (Michał Kleczkowski) in his official documents. The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania decided that names and surnames are to be spelled according to the Lithuanian alphabet which does not contain letters “ł” and “w”.

Signs. 11 years later the Supreme Administrative Court in Lithuania banned the use of signs bearing Polish names of the streets. The areas of these streets have been mainly inhabited by Poles. The local governments that do not apply to the rule are fined with financial penalties.

Schools. The situation got tense in 2011 when Lithuanian parliament enacted novelization to the statute concerning education. It introduced unified compulsory Lithuanian exam to Polish and Lithuanian pupils. Polish youth only have two years to make up for 10 years of curricular differences. Students, parents and teachers are on strike. They have been coming out on the streets with banners saying “Leave us and our schools alone” and “NO to forced assimilation.”

Since 1995 the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (transl. note: also referred to as AWPL) struggles for the respect towards the rights of the Polish minority in Lithuania (current leader of the party is Waldemar Tomaszewski). Why are Poles unsuccessful in the 25 years long fight for their rights in Lithuania? The answer comes from Aleksander Radczenko – born in 1975, a lawyer, publicist and the author of the blog titled “Inna Wileńszczyzna jest możliwa” (“Different Vilnius region is possible”).

Ewa Wołdakowska-Kołodziej: Have you been discriminated?
Aleksander Radczenko: No I haven’t. I generally don’t fit the picture of a martyred Pole in Lithuania. When I graduated from the university in 1998, I went to the job interview to the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania and heard “Not bad, only you speak Lithuanian with a terrible Polish accent. How is your writing?”, I answered: “without accent”.

I got the job. I was the first non-Lithuanian lawyer in the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania. Poles usually worked there as cleaners or people responsible for maintaining copy machines. Today they constitute 10% of the employed in the ministry, many of them occupy director positions. The situation is similar in other departments. Poles are capable of working 12 hours per day, seven times a week in order to prove something.

E.W.-K.: So they have to prove themselves?
A.R.: Pole has to work more, because Lithuania is a country of alliances. We are the first, potentially the second generation of intelligence among Poles in Lithuania. To be honest, Polish people went to the universities in the 1990s’. Even then many of my friends dropped out because parents told them something like: “Someone has to feed those pigs and you play in your law studies.” We have to work hard because we can count only on ourselves. We have no alliances, no one to fall back on. Despite the hardships we have achievements, but we are unable to sell them.

E.W.-K.: Please, do tell us about it.
A.R.: Of course. Antoni Mikulski – chief of the police in Vilnius, he receives distinctions for destroying organized crime every year. Andrzej Maciejewski – he is a judge of the Supreme Court of Lithuania. Dr. Bogusław Grużewski – he is one of the most recognized Lithuanian sociologists, and the head of the Institute of Labor and Social research. Polish media don’t write about it because it doesn’t match the picture of a Pole discriminated on territories formerly held by Poland.

These people don’t identify themselves with Waldemar Tomaszewski, the leader of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. They gained success not thanks to him, but in a way against him. Let’s not fool ourselves, Tomaszewski’s actions in Lithuania are more harmful than beneficial. Every talk with Lithuanians on Polish affairs ends in the same way, i.e.: “You’re cool, but that Tomaszewski of yours…”.

E.W.-K.: Hold on. Why increasing number of people cast their votes on him then?
A.R.: Poles in Lithuania vote either on “their own”, or “against” Lithuanians. The Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania always receives over 50% of votes in local government elections in the Vilnius district and in the Šalčininkai district; however they had no chance during the parliamentary election, because national parties actively encouraged Poles to cast their votes on them. At some point, those Lithuanian parties came to the conclusion that these 20-30 thousand additional votes are redundant, and fulfilling the promises concerning problems of Poles in Lithuania might potentially discourage more radical Lithuanian voters, and stopped fight for Polish votes.

E.W.-K.: What were these plans about?
A.R.: They have been the same for 25 years. Our four main problems are: the return of lands in the Vilnius region, original spelling of the surnames of Poles coming from here, the possibility of hanging signs bearing the names of streets in Polish, and prolonging and developing the functioning of Polish schools. When Lithuanian parties turned their backs on Poles the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania became the only alternative. But this party’s politics is based on distrust and the opposition between “our own” and “alien”. Voters can always say: “If others will come to power it will get worse. We might not do anything but we are at least of “our own” kind.”

E.W.-K.: AWPL is getting stronger. Its activists became part of the governmental coalition for the first and the second time. They had a minister, few deputy ministers, and…
A.R.: …and done nothing.
E.W.-K.: Maybe they are too few?
A.R.: Let’s not fool ourselves, Polish party will never have 71 members in the Lithuanian parliament, i.e. the majority. With the growing support from Russians it will be possible to have at most 10.

The problem of AWPL is that the party is unable to hold back-room talks. In the Lithuanian parliament exotic coalitions are formed on the regular basis. When a Polish initiative is to be blocked conservatists cooperate with social democrats and block it. Why can’t AWPL do the same in order to pass a project beneficial to the Polish minority? It is probably the result of the lack of the expert power base capable of lobbing the back-room talks. I hope, it is not due to the lack of initiative.

E.W.-K.: Let’s be honest, these Polish demands are just. How is it possible that since 1990 nothing has changed?
A.R.: Our greatest failure is that we made those demands political. Every Lithuanian party thinks that there is no profit in fulfilling those demands, AWPL on the other hand would popularize its potential fulfillment as its success. Why should Lithuanians help AWPL to get votes? These matters shouldn’t be resolved by AWPL, but by Polish-Lithuanian apolitical movement. Something similar to the 1960s’ anti-segregation movement in the USA.

E.W.-K.: What should Poland do then? It futilely waited for 25 years. It pushed with no effect either.
A.R.: Poland should forget.
E.W.-K.: You’re kidding, right?
A.R.: Only partially. Of course, Poland should know about such matters, but solving problems of Poles in Lithuania lies in the hands of Poles in Lithuania. There are the ones that should communicate with the Lithuanian government. There’s no other way out. After four years of Sikorski’s rule in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, AWPL understood that Warsaw is unable to force Lithuania to anything. Now, Polish authorities hope that the EU will help, but it won’t. It doesn’t have such power.

Sikorski unnecessarily said few years ago that: “he won’t visit Lithuania, unless the problems of Polish minority are solved”. I can understand him. After all, Lithuania broke given promises, but he is a diplomat and I expected more from him. Such words put Lithuanian politicians, even those favorable to Poles, on the spot. If they fulfill Polish demands just because Big Brother from Warsaw got angry than they will be doomed politically. That’s because Lithuanian nation shaped itself in the opposition to Poland.

E.W.-K.: So Poland, which yearly spends 17 million PLN on Poles in Lithuania is supposed to stay silent and don’t interfere?
A.R.: It has to remind about the problems of Polish minority, but primarily demonstrate friendship to Lithuania and strive to change the image of Lithuanian Pole in the Lithuanian media. To most Lithuanians, this image portrays disloyal, or at least suspicious citizen. We should remember that on the 11th of March 1990, during the voting concerning the independence of Lithuania, 6 out of 9 Polish members of the parliament abstained (they were the only ones to do so). Poles wanted to create their autonomy: some in the independent Lithuania, others in the USSR. Lithuanians unanimously took it as an attempt to handicap their independence.

E.W.-K.: That was 25 years ago.
A.R.: The image of a disloyal Pole is successfully sustained by Tomaszewski. Let’s take a random statement of his as an example: “We don’t have to integrate with anyone, we have been here from the beginning, this is our land. You are the newcomers here (Lithuanians), you should integrate with us. It only takes one visit to the cemetery to notice that there are only Polish surnames there.”

During the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine all Lithuanian parties, even those traditionally accused for being pro-Russian sided with Ukraine against Russia. Tomaszewski, on the other hand, condemned Maidan (the Independence Square) claiming that instead of revolution, Ukrainians should try to change their situation during the elections. A reasonable statement, yet AWPL does not think about legal means to implement its postulates. For instance, it didn’t pay the fines and take bilingual signs from houses, despite being ordered by the court of law. People took it as an act of civil disobedience. Maidan is also an example of civil disobedience.

E.W.-K.: I bet that the orange-black ribbon called “stonka ziemniaczana” (“the potato bug”) didn’t help either.
A.R.: On the 9th of May last year, during the event organized by Russian embassy, Tomaszewski showed up with two symbols placed on his jacket: the flag of Poland and the ribbon of the military Order of Saint George (established by empress Catherine the Great). Of course, one may seek chivalrous traditions in this symbol, but nowadays it is mostly associated with the Donbas separatists. Zbigniew Jedziński, a close associate of Tomaszewski, once proposed the bombard of Kiev! Are you surprised that many Lithuanians hate Poles? But it all depends on the actions of the Lithuanian Poles and the relations between Poland and Lithuania. During the strategic Polish-Lithuanian partnership, 53% of Lithuanians considered Poland friendly, today this attitude is shared only by 20% of Lithuanians.

E.W.-K.: Tomaszewski doesn’t stand for 200,000 Poles in the Vilnius region.
A.R.: For the majority of Lithuanians – he does. Jarosław Niewierowicz, former minister of energetic, had a chance to change this image. He was perceived as so called “good Pole”. He was convenient for both sides. No one doubted his patriotism. He had major influence on building LNG terminal, he negotiated hard with Gazprom. No one doubted his Polish character either. He became one of the most popular Lithuanian politicians, but he was recalled last august, and AWPL withdraw from governmental coalition. Poles are represented by Tomaszewski alone, again.

My acquaintance from Kaunas recently took Lithuanian children for a trip to Vilnius. After the return, the children were supposed to write what surprised them the most. Do you know what they wrote? “We heard Polish and Russian on the streets. We knew that Poles and Russians live in Lithuania, but we have never seen one before. It was fascinating!”.

Our biggest problem is that we live next to one another without knowing one another. Poles from Jaszuny (Jašiūnai) or Šalčininkai district read in Polish newspapers that Lithuanians are nationalists who wiped us out from Lauda (Liaudė, region on the north of Kaunus), and that now they want to wipe us out from the Vilnius region. The only thing that Lithuanians from Klaipėda know about Poles is that during the existence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poles polonized Lithuanias and eventually usurped their beloved Vilnius.

E.W.-K.: It doesn’t look good.
A.R.: We have to cooperate with Lithuanians. With the decrease of the social support the interest of politicians in dealing with Polish problems decreases as well. They calculate everything by the votes count. Such Lithuanian historians and publicists like: Rimvydas Valatka, Alfredas Bumblauskas, Alvydas Nikžentaitis or Virginijus Savukynas are supportive to Poles. But what does AWPL do to aid them? Nothing. When Forum Dialogu i Współpracy im. Jerzego Giedroycia (Jerzy Giedroyc’s Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation) organized meeting for Polish and Lithuanian journalists with the local activists in Šalčininkai district, practically no one from AWPL was there.

E.W.-K.: Poles are not fully responsible for their image in Lithuania. When I watch Lithuanian TV show, where frequently a “Pole” with a moustache sings: “Wilno nasze – taka sprawa. Cieszą się Wilno, Soleczniki i Warszawa!” (“Vilnius ours, that’s the matter. Vilnius, Šalčininkai and Warsaw laughter”), I lose the urge for a discussion as well.
A.R.: True, once in a popular Dviračiošou cabaret Pole was portrayed as a sympathetic joey, but recently this image transformed into not funny imbecile. There is a need to talk with TV stations, to convince them that such portrayal of a Pole has negative influence on the society. If an attempt to convince fails, then one should buy the airtime and produce one’s own TV programme.

E.W.-K.: For whose money?
A.R.: Polish, for instance. Millions are spent on helping Poles in Lithuania each year, but I have an impression that Poland does not really know what it wants to achieve by this expenditure. Some editors of Polish media told me that they have one clear objective: “Unity is priority. Don’t criticize Tomaszewski or AWPL and you will have financial stability”. People take a slightest criticism as Polish-Polish war.

During last few years, major changes in funding Poles in Lithuania have been implemented. Publishing the data concerning who received money, and what were the sums of received money by Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a very good idea. But the information on what were these money spent on, and why those particular projects got grants is equally important. Besides, Poland spends money on the existence of Polish minority in Lithuania, not on its development.

E.W.-K.: Do you have an idea to change it?
A.R.: In my opinion, Poland’s ultimate strategy should be the creation of self-sufficient community of Poles in Lithuania. Maybe, we don’t need so many interactive whiteboards, on which teachers write with chalk anyway? Establishing prestigious Polish secondary school, capable of competing with prestigious Lithuanian schools, in order to raise Polish elite in Lithuania is worth considering.

We have to have independent Polish media. Objectively, AWPL has no competition because another Polish party would have no chance to exceed the electoral threshold. However, someone has to have control over politicians. If it cannot be done by political competition, then it must be done by media.

Let’s remember that every succeeding census proves that the number of Poles in Lithuania decreased by 30,000. If being a Pole in Lithuania will not become more attractive, the problems of Polish minority will resolve naturally. In 50 years time there will simply be no Poles in Lithuania. Or, there will be so few of us that signs bearing Polish names of the streets won’t constitute a problem anymore.

But then Lithuania will face other hardships. Society is getting older, so new immigrants will come to work on this army of the retired. If today, Lithuania is unable to communicate with Poles whose roots are in Lithuania, who are loyal citizens of Lithuania, and who have similar mentality to Lithuanians, then how is Lithuania going to integrate with the newcomers? If they will find a way to cooperate with Poles, they will be able to cope with newcomers as well.

E.W.-K.: Something finally changed last year.
A.R.: A bit. Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania changed its doctrine and (based on the motion issued by linguists) allowed for the original spelling of the surnames of foreigners, their spouses and children. Now, one has to convince linguists to expand this permission on the names of the Poles living in Lithuania. There have also been a minor development in the matter of signs. The fines for signs bearing Polish names of the streets have been cancelled and official names of the streets have been moved on the poles. The names of the streets on the poles are in Lithuanian, but no one gets punished for the Polish names on the buildings. Since we can’t solve this problem through implementing a single statute, this step by step strategy is the only one that remains for us.

E.W.-K.: You write a political blog. Henryk Pieszko, councilor of the mayor of the local government of Vilnius, accused you for destroying the Polish unity, which is a result of your criticism towards AWPL.
A.R.: It is a frequent accusation. People say that: “It is true that Polish party sucks. They steal, employ relatives, but if we start writing about it Lithuanians will use it against us. Polish-Polish criticism will weaken us”. I tend to respond that strength cannot be build on a lie. Systems based on muted lies and scandals will always fall. Lithuanians don’t need proofs that AWPL is bad, for them it is an axiom.

Besides, something has began in the Polish community. Poles established a debating club. Polish musicians distributed an alternative music record sang in Polish. Additionally, I really like the initiative of a blogger Tomasz Samsel who advises more frivolous approach towards the problem of symbols, for example: wearing t-shirts containing letters forbidden in Lithuania, e.g. the word “żółw” (transl. note: Polish for turtle).

Text originally published by “Gazeta Wyborcza”.

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

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