• September 21, 2019
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Vilnius Region 2040: Where we would like to be in 20 years

What will the Vilnius region be like in 20 years? Will Polishness survive and develop? Will the Polish community be an educated and wealthy part of the Lithuanian society, or an open-air museum full of insecurities? “Let’s take matters into our own hands” – suggest the members of the Polish Discussion Club, who for the second time organized the Festival of Social Initiatives ‘Vilnius 2040’, inviting to discussion representatives of Polish education, business, politics, NGOs and the media. The foreseen result of these meetings is a strategy for the development of Polishness, which will be released next year.

“First of all, we want to know where we stand. A reliable, objective assessment of the state of the Polish language, education, and economy is needed. Is civil society possible among Poles in Lithuania or are we just now figuring out what it is? We need to assess the current state of things and understand what is most important to us. And to plan – to know in which direction we are headed, not just live the way we live,” says Alina Obolewicz, president of the Polish Discussion Club.

The debate on creating a strategy for the development of Polishness in the Vilnius region until 2040 was initiated last year – the first Festival of Social Initiatives took place in Glitiškės. At that time, the president of the New Media Institute, Eryk Mistewicz, programme director of the Analysis Centre of the Jagiellonian Club, Dr Marcin Kędzierski, and the well-known Polish linguist Prof. Jerzy Bralczyk shared their expertise.

This year, guests from Poland were also invited to lead two discussion panels. Block ‘Attractive Polishness: Polish education, culture, media, and the Polish language in Lithuania’ was moderated by Łukasz Warzecha – a journalist, publicist, and political commentator, while the topic ‘Wealthy Vilnius Region: Economy, social affairs and civil society’ was moderated by a journalist of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Michał Potocki. Dr Małgorzata Stefanowicz from the Jagiellonian University presented the results of the study ‘Language preferences of Poles in the Vilnius region regarding the media’.

“We have consciously chosen moderators from Poland in order for someone to look at us from the outside. We wanted it to be someone who is not associated with us, who does not know the majority of you, who will be able to moderate the discussion and draw interesting conclusions” – explained one of the founders of the club and co-authors of the future strategy, lawyer and publicist Aleksander Radczenko.

Grzegorz Poznański, the deputy Polish ambassador in Lithuania, also greeted the participants of the meeting. “We need to discuss good ideas and make proposals, but so that all Poles who are in Lithuania stand behind them. It is worth not restricting ourselves with tight clusters such as education, business, and transport. Creating conditions for the functioning of the Polish language in public space will generate business in Polish, and this, in turn, will increase the prestige of the Polish language, the need for Polish schools and Polish teachers. With no demand for Polish, the prestige of the language will not be as high as we would like it to be. It must be visible in the entire public space” – noted Poznański.

Discussion participants agreed that one of the biggest challenges for Poles in Lithuania could be the census in 2021, which will be held without interviewers coming to citizens’ homes, but based solely on entries from the registry. If Poles in Lithuania do not take care of entering nationality into their documents in time, statistically it can significantly reduce the so-called ‘holdings’ – it may turn out that according to the census there are fewer of us than before. Thus, the negotiation positions on education, the spelling of names and other important issues will be weakened. “For the Polish minority to remain a significant social group, it must remain numerous,” summit participants admitted.

A large part of the talks revolved around education – the most problematic and at the same time the most important issue for the functioning of the Polish minority in Lithuania. Current trends look, if not optimistic, then at least stable – the number of students in the first grades is slightly increasing. However, still, only 60 per cent of children from Polish families attend Polish schools. The inhabitants of the Vilnius region expect Polish schools to be competitive, competent, professional and to provide knowledge for living in the modern world [and] in Lithuania. Young Poles are to be capable Lithuanian citizens with Polish identity. The search for ways towards this ideal still remains a big challenge because nowadays ‘yesterday’s teachers teach today’s children how to live tomorrow’. The problem lies both in students’ level of Polish, as they remain influenced by Russian pop culture (although they consider English to be the most prestigious), and in teachers from Polish schools. The issue of students’ identity and even that of their parents is another book-size subject.

On the subject of politics, the participants of the debate put forward the demand for greater democratization of the political life of Poles in the Vilnius region. It is true that the best option is centralized, core organization representing Poles in Lithuania, however, it should evolve towards greater bottom-up influence on political decision-making. One of the tools to achieve this goal would be a direct election of governors [Polish: starosta, TN], which would lead to strengthening the representation in the districts.

The development of transport, road and rail infrastructure in the region was indicated as an important factor – so that Poles who do not live in Vilnius would have quick, easy and convenient access to both the capital and other cities, and that Vilnius itself would be ‘closer’ to the rest of the world.

Practical help to attract investment in the Vilnius region should include strengthening the staff of the Polish Chamber of Commerce in this direction, as well as the emergence of ‘business angels’ recruited from large Polish companies that would support entrepreneurship in the Vilnius region.

The need for greater support for Polish NGOs in the Vilnius region, where they are weaker and have less capacity to act, was also pointed out. There was even talk of raising defense capabilities in the Vilnius region as an area close to Belarus.

Most ideas have not yet gone beyond the working phase. The time will come for specific wording during meetings and work in smaller groups – the organizers of the meeting announced. The strategy for the Vilnius region, which is to be presented to all political forces in the country before the 2020 election, will not be a ‘document for life’ – say its future authors. They foresee the need to organize meetings every year, look at changes, assess the existing situation and plan further actions in accordance with existing realities.

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

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