• February 1, 2018
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Warsaw’s Polish Discussion Club: Unfulfilled promises draw Poles living in Lithuania towards Russia

Russia skillfully takes advantage of problems of the Polish minority to deteriorate relations between Warsaw and Vilnius: according to panel debate “Polityka zagraniczna RP a Polacy na Litwie” (TN: Poland’s foreign policy and Poles in Lithuania). The debate was held on January 13 in the University of Warsaw, and it was organized by Warsaw’s Polish Discussion Club.

Poland was represented by Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, historian, political scientist and advisor of Poland’s minister of foreign affairs. Andrzej Pukszto, head of the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy of the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, spoke on the Lithuanian side. Political scientist Mariusz Antonowicz moderated the discussion.

The debate was co-organized by Eastbook, a website on Eastern European issues.

“It is impossible to eliminate Polish minority’s animosity towards Lithuania if we don’t solve its problems in a way that is satisfactory to this minority. If we don’t fulfill our postulates, this group will be drawn towards its only effective protector, Russia,” argued Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski. He warned that people often have extremely subjective opinions and that both countries needed to work together to create among the Poles living in Lithuania a feeling of a “fair treatment of subjective problems.”

“Issues of the Polish minority up until 2004 were eclipsed by the goals of Euro-Atlantic integration, which indeed have dominated the sphere of relations between Poland and Lithuania,” said Andrzej Pukszto. He added that European standards need to be upheld when dealing with national minorities, even if the standards sometimes aren’t codified. A larger moral civilizational dynamic urges the preservation of such rules.

In Moscow’s shadow

Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski opened the discussion with historical issues, and he emphasized that Polish-Lithuanian relations were always cast in Moscow’s shadow, and that from the very beginning these relations were unsuccessful.

“I think the relations that began anew in 1990-91 between the two independent countries, as opposed to countries controlled by the Soviet Union, were unfortunate. This happened because of historical reasons: the development of a modern Lithuanian identity, as well as the legacy of World War II. Add to that 1990’s specificity: the Soviet Union’s politics in peripheral regions amounted to breaking down of the territorial integrity of countries that started moving away from Moscow, which was often done using national minorities,” said the professor.

“One deciding factor that influenced these relations was a deep sentiment of the Polish public towards Lithuania, which no longer exists.  (…) This held potential for mutual sympathy. (…) Another driving force in Polish-Lithuanian relations was a large disparity in population. (…) Certain forbearance was thus formed, and a belief that smart politics between both countries: foreign, minorities, and other, isn’t necessary,” argued the scientist.

Four entities in relations

The professor emphasized that there are four entities in Polish-Lithuanian relations: Lithuania, Poland, Polish minority – with its own, independent from Warsaw, political leadership – and Russia, which is hostile towards the other three.

“When discussing modern politics, it is important to emphasize the very different political climate after 2008. Russia’s return to imperial politics based on military resources wasn’t perceived by Polish ruling classes. Perhaps this was recognized in Lithuania but, due to Western influences, it was ignored. (…) I think this had several repercussions for Polish-Lithuanian relations. The media in the Vilnius Region became controlled by Russia. This happened due to fundamentally faulty Lithuanian politics on the one hand and on the other hand, Polish negligence of the financial aspects in media. It was naive and unwise to believe in the lithuanization of Poles by interfering with Polish media,” remarked Grajewski. He believes that this is now a mutual problem of both countries, and solving it is strategically important for preserving regional stability. The advisor of the head of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs added that military cooperation between Vilnius and Warsaw is vital in preserving safety in the region, as it stands in opposition to Russian provocations.

Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski added that certain changes to the legal system in Lithuania are needed to normalize the relations between both countries. This relates to issues concerning the spelling of last names or speaking in Polish in public. This also concerns the abolishment of the minimum threshold for political minority parties, which would effectively discontinue the criticized alliance with the pro-Putin Russian minority. Lithuania would also have to improve the mindset of its own electorate, where an anti-Polish sentiment is ingrained since the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Grajewski added that both countries lose if nothing is done.

Aggression sparks new discussion

Pukszto agreed with Grajewski concerning the military alliance with Poland. “There is little disagreement when talking about issues of security in the context of 2008 and the renewal of Russian imperialism, especially after what happened in Ukraine. Lithuania is nothing in terms of security without Poland,” admitted the Lithuanian political scientist. He added that Lithuania hasn’t had for years an idea on how to deal with Polish postulates and the normalization of the situation in the country. He added that this difficulty greatly influenced foreign, especially Polish-Lithuanian, politics.

“There is a need for new ideas and concepts regarding foreign affairs since Lithuania became a member of the EU and NATO in 2004. (…) In some aspects Russian aggression on Ukraine sparked a new beginning, new discussions and a search for new ideas in foreign affairs,” emphasized Pukszto.

Head of the Kaunas Cathedral reminded the participants of Charles de Gaulle’s words that, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” In his opinion, creating an attractive image of Poland in Lithuania is an important factor in improving the Polish-Lithuanian relations.  This would improve not only the image of Poland but also the image of Poles living in Lithuania. He added that this was a job not only for politicians but also for economists, educators and cultural activists.

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

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