• October 30, 2015
  • 69

Okińczyc: Good Polish – Lithuanian relations are possible

 “Law and Justice” (Polish acronym: PiS) has won the parliamentary election. The party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, is going to form a one-party cabinet and implement their electoral programme also in the field of foreign policy. That is where I can see a chance to reset Polish – Lithuanian relations.

“Law and Justice” has always been a party placing a great emphasis on Jagiellonian tradition, the late President Lech Kaczyński always wanted Poland to have a strong position among the countries of Central-Eastern Europe, the position was meant to be built with all of other important players from that part of Europe, including Lithuania. The very first activities of the new President of Poland Andrzej Duda make us think that there is a chance to continue this approach of foreign policy. His first visit abroad was to Estonia which is a clear signal that the approach is going to be continued and that the Baltic countries play a very important role in it. Lithuania is also included in this group.

-“Good relations with the Republic of Lithuania are important for the Republic of Poland, especially nowadays, when we are facing numerous threats to Europe and to our region. That is why we should look for an impulse to develop those relations also in Polish groups which form an important part of the Lithuanian society.” – President of Poland Andrzej Duda wrote in his letter to the organisers and participants of the harvest festival in the Vilnius region.

Are we actually able to find such an impulse to improve Polish – Lithuanian relations? Which of the leaders of the Polish minority would have to perform the task?

Unfortunately, some of the leaders of the Polish national minority in Lithuania send very contradictory messages in this respect. On the one hand, they congratulate Poland on the victory of anti-Kremlin and patriotic forces, but on the other hand they build their position in Lithuania at the expense of both Polish and Lithuanian reason of state – by starting electoral coalitions with pro-Kremlin Russians, wearing St George’s Ribbon, and striking friendships with leaders of pro-Kremlin media, with whom they have peculiar night-time meetings in cafes. Maybe, their aim is to “publicise” their efforts against the Lithuanian educational policy in the media? But will such publicity not be more convenient to the owners of those pro-Kremlin channels instead of the Poles in Lithuania?

About education – without understanding

However, it must be mentioned that education is an issue which the Lithuanian politicians have been ignoring for years, especially in the context of needs and worries of national minorities. The Amendment of the Education Act, pushed through in 2011, which introduced a standardised exam in Lithuanian for schools with the Lithuanian language of instruction and the schools with other languages of instruction without the appropriate transition period undoubtedly is another blow for the Polish minority in Lithuania (regardless of the original intentions and words of the reformers) and for the relations of the two countries. The results of Matura exam from the last years are worse for the young Poles than for the Lithuanians. They clearly show us that the transition period is necessary and that examination assistance introduced by the Minister of Education of Science is not enough.

The wall of mutual distrust is even higher because of the issue of reorganisation of the school network in Vilnius. It is not about the very fact of reorganisation – when only half of Polish children attend Polish schools, the reorganisation is inevitable – but about the way in which it is being done: haste, supporting Lithuanian schools in their application for the status of a “long” gymnasium and ignoring similar activities of Polish schools and lack of social consultations. There is a wise Polish proverb: “Look for the trait in yourself seven times, then blame others.” That is why we cannot forget that the grounds for the unfortunate process of reorganisation were laid by the previous City Council of Vilnius in whose work the representatives of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL) took part. Now they are first to imitate active defence of those schools. The representatives of the AWPL belonged to the ruling coalition for four years and they were responsible the educational policy. First, the Vilnius City Council delayed any decision concerning the reorganisation process as much as possible – even though the decision could have been made without bigger losses, and during the recent session, they decided (also thanks to the votes of the AWPL) not to enrol pupils to the eleventh grade classes in the Szymon Konarski Secondary School or the school in Lazdynai. They were perfectly aware that it means probable degradation of the schools to the status of primary schools.

Either tolerance or the third league

The Lithuanian government should realise how important the issue of education of the Poles in Lithuania is – no ethnic minority is ever going to survive without its culture, language and education. That is why any kind of manipulation in the education of national minorities should be consulted, evaluated and weighed a hundred times and implemented only in exceptional cases because the good of the given ethnic minority is at stake. We should be careful to protect its identity, language and culture and we should not let it assimilate and melt into the culture of the majority. In the 21st century, it is high time we understood that multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual and multinational character of a country indicates the strength of a country, not its weakness. It is not surprising that people having creative jobs, like scientists, musicians, lawyers, journalists, writers or artists, choose multicultural cities and countries to live. Tolerance, technology and talent are the driving force of the current economic development. If Lithuania aspires to be a modern country – and this is the aim of Lithuanian elites – it will have to embrace tolerance. Those are the rules of the game: either you are tolerant or along with your caveman-like nationalism you get relegated to the league of the Third World countries.

The argument about the letter “w” in the names and surnames of the Lithuanian Poles can be seen as a manifestation of such primitive nationalism. It is saddening for me to see how many people were misled by the leaders of an absurd movement “Cooperative Movement for the National Lithuanian Language”, established by the Lithuanian Nationalist Union (in Lithuanian: Tautininkų sąjunga) (the LNU with a coalition “For Lithuania in Lithuania (lit. Už Lietuvą Lietuvoje) got only 0.94 % of votes which means that the citizens of Lithuania rejected their programme). The “Cooperative Movement” is now collecting signatures supporting the legislative initiative which in their opinion would “solve the problem of spelling of non-Lithuanian names and surnames”, because it would allow everyone to use any spelling they wish on the further pages of their passport. Obviously, it will not solve any problems because such provision would not be valid and the leaders of the movement only want to remind about themselves before the Seimas election scheduled for the next year and to blackmail the Members of the Parliament with an outbreak of “public outrage” before the MPs analyse the social democrats’ bill on spelling of names and surnames which would allow for the use of the letters “w”, “q” and “x” on the first page of the passport and the identity card. On the other hand, who prevents us, the Poles in Lithuania, the AWPL and the Association of Poles in Lithuania (ZPL) from establishing our own “cooperative movement” and collecting 50 000 signatures supporting a bill promising even more progressive solutions?

History divided us, interest may make us come closer to each other

If I were to pinpoint a force which could give the impulse to improve the Polish – Lithuanian relations, it would be entrepreneurs and economy. The market does not care about phobias, stereotypes and complexes, what counts is profit. Good relations between the Poles and the Lithuanians are in our common interest, not only the economic one. My friend, the late Dariusz Fikus, the legendary editor of a Polish daily “Rzeczpospolita”, who in 1994 helped me start a weekly “Słowo Wileńskie” in Lithuania, presented a perfect and short recipe for improving the relations between the two countries: “History divided us, interest may make us come closer to each other”. I agree with him. I am glad that at least economic relations between Poland and Lithuania are good. Let us take for instance the PKN Orlen’s investment in a refinery in Mažeikiai (despite significant logistical problems concerning the Lithuanian Railways it is still profitable), PZU’s investment in the Lithuanian insurance market, including the acquisition of the biggest insurance company in Lithuania “Lietuvos draudimas”, fruitful work of the LOTOS group, the Polish – Lithuanian energy bridge LitPolLink which will send energy in a few days’ time and the construction of gas pipeline connecting Poland and Lithuania, due to commence shortly.

Undoubtedly, those relations could be even better. It is impossible to comprehend why it is Sweden, still located on the other shore of the Baltic Sea, which is the most important investor in Lithuania and not thriving Poland with whom Lithuanians share the border. I am sure that more active economic cooperation between Poland and Lithuania would influence their relations positively.

The victory of “Law and Justice” and the formation of the new Polish cabinet are the chance for the new beginning also in the case of Lithuania. Obviously, solving all problems in the Polish – Lithuanian relations and the problems of the Polish minority will not be easy and cannot be done immediately. The problem of spelling of names and surnames have become so politicised lately that the likelihood of its finishing in the nearest future is rather low. But we have to start with something. It may be the problem of rooms for the Vilnius branch of the University of Białystok. The branch which was opened in 2007 thanks to the then Prime Minister of Lithuania Gediminas Kirkilas, the late President of Poland Lech Kaczyński and the Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, has been named as a solution of one of the problems of the relations of the two countries for years but it has been also struggling with the lack of their own rooms and buildings. None of the successive Polish cabinets was able to fund the purchase.

Obviously, Lithuania should also do its homework. It would be wise to start with creation of “Orlen Lietuva” and the appropriate work environment without having to struggle any bureaucracy or railway problems. Lithuanian government should also provide assistance to Polish schools in the process of application for accreditation.

There are many fields in which we can take small steps to create something big. I hope that currently we are witnessing the first steps towards the new Polish – Lithuanian beginning.

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

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