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Poland’s war against Lithuania over education law

  • 2011-04-06
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VICTIMS OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM: On March 30, President Dalia Grybauskaite talked about changes in the education of ethnic minorities in Panevezys before visiting the Panevezys Correction House, where she met with female prisoners (pictured).

VILNIUS - On March 30, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite signed a new law on education which includes teaching history and geography, as well as the subject called civic education (about the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic country), in the Lithuanian language in the Lithuanian state-financed Slavic minority schools. It provoked a hysterical reaction from Poland, which was supported by a mild echo from the Russian Foreign Ministry as well.

On March 30, Grybauskaite talked about changes in the education of ethnic minorities while visiting the town of Panevezys. She said that better knowledge of the Lithuanian language would help ethnic minorities to integrate into the labor market and start a better life. “My main motive was to help Lithuania’s ethnic minorities to feel like equal citizens, to be respected and to know our dear language well,” Grybauskaite said, adding that she can speak almost all the languages of Lithuania’s ethnic minorities, and Lithuania is the best in the EU, in terms of ensuring the educational and cultural needs of ethnic minorities.
On March 23, the Polish Foreign Ministry protested against the recent introduction of Lithuanian-language history and geography lessons in Lithuania’s Slavic schools (four percent of all Lithuania’s pupils attend Russian schools and 3.2 percent Polish schools in Lithuania).

On March 24, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry answered Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, saying that Lithuania just mirrors the Polish steps of 2007 for Lithuanian schools in Poland, where the situation of ethnic minority schools is rather tragic in comparison with Lithuania. “Unfortunately, the situation of Lithuanian education in Poland is worsening each year – half of Lithuanian schools were closed there during the last 10 years,” reads the statement of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry of March 24 about the situation in ethnic Lithuanian lands which Poland gained during its troops’ march on Vilnius in 1920.

Lithuanian pupils in Poland are forced to be translators starting from the age of seven: they study from Polish language textbooks because the Polish state does not print textbooks in Lithuanian, while the Lithuanian state does print textbooks in Russian and Polish. Gintaras Steponavicius, the Liberal Movement-delegated Lithuanian minister of education and science, stated that he would like to invite Sikorski to visit together Polish schools in Lithuania and Lithuanian schools in Poland on the same day. The comparison would not be in favor of Poland, according to Steponavicius.

Marcin Bosacki, representative of the Polish Foreign Ministry, stated on his ministry’s Web site that the new Lithuanian law can assimilate Lithuania’s Poles and it possibly breaks the 1994 treaty between Lithuania and Poland on friendly relations and good neighborly cooperation. The treaty states that the minority situation should not be worsened in both countries. Taking into account that the recent Lithuanian law just mirrors the Polish educational reform and changes in Poland’s Lithuanian schools of 2007, the Polish Foreign Ministry with such statements is accusing its own country of breaking the 1994 treaty. “We are disappointed. We wanted to respect the principle of not worsening,” Sikorski spoke on March 30 in an inarticulate manner, commenting on the news about Grybauskaite’s signing of the law. If some French, German or Dutch foreign minister, after too much wine, beer or marijuana, would interfere into the educational matters of Belgium, he or she would be forced to resign immediately. However, Sikorski, although he behaves as if he is using all those three substances together, is still in his post.

On March 31, the office of Sikorski’s good friend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, joined in. Alexander Lukashevich, representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated that the Lithuanian law on education “raised concerns to non-Lithuanians, especially Polish and Russian minorities, which are afraid of assimilation.” It was the harshest sentence in the statement. The statement was rather mild and looked like a friendly gesture to Lavrov’s comrade Sikorski.

The signing, by Grybauskaite, of the law on education was announced as the start of war on TVP, Poland’s main state TV channel, during its main evening news of March 30. The anchorman had a stony expression on his face while announcing the news. He showed the map of the battle behind him. Half of Lithuania was painted in red. The red territory was supposed to show territories inhabited by Poles. The anchorman pointed to Alytus and Utena, mentioning these towns by their Polish names, though locals of those regions can hardly meet a Pole there. Then the anchorman stated that Lithuania made a decision to close half of the Polish schools, announcing with a steely voice about the introduction of Lithuanian-taught lessons on “Lithuanian patriotism” (they probably had in mind civic education lessons, for which Leonidas Donskis, philosopher, European Parliament Liberal member and The Baltic Times columnist, wrote a textbook). While Lithuanian public TV news showed various, positive and negative, opinions of pupils and a director in a Polish school in Vilnius, TVP showed only convulsed faces of Lithuania’s Polish activists who spoke against the law.

Such quality of TVP news is mostly due to a poor knowledge of foreign languages in Poland. The only source for TVP and other Polish media are Poland-based ultra-chauvinistic “Poland’s Outskirts” (“Polskie Kresy” in Polish) organizations, which are still dreaming about a ‘return’ of Vilnius and Lviv to Poland, and the Lithuania-based Polish Electoral Action political party. On March 30, a spokesman for Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, told TVP that Poland will support the Polish Electoral Action. It is the first such statement in EU history when one EU country states that it will support a political party in another EU state. Even Russia makes its electoral suggestions for its neighbors in more subtle way. There is one such precedent for this in the world: Iran openly supports the Hezbollah political party in Lebanon. The Polish-Russian bloc, with the long official title of the Coalition of Lithuania’s Polish Electoral Action and the Russian Alliance “Bloc of Valdemar Tomasevski” (this religious fundamentalist is a member of the eurosceptic nationalist group, the European Conservatives and Reformists, in the European Parliament and leader of the Polish Electoral Action) rules in two (out of Lithuania’s 60) municipalities close to the capital city. Those two rural municipalities, due to the Polish Electoral Action rule, are rather poor and different from the rest of Lithuania, despite the perfect location near the capital city. Vytautas Landsbergis, member of the European Parliament’s center-right mainstream majority, described the political atmosphere in both municipalities ruled by the Polish Electoral Action as “little Belarus.”

In 1991-1995, soon after the collapse of the hard-line communist putsch in Moscow of August 1991, Vilnius imposed direct rule in those two municipalities because they backed the putsch. The Polish separatism of the local communist nomenclature was inspired in those municipalities by the Kremlin before the failed putsch.
“When there are no problems in the sphere of human rights, NGOs are happy, while it is a death penalty for a party having its program’s task to defend human rights because such a party becomes unnecessary. It means that it is essential for such a party to defend somebody. If there are no breaches, they should be invented and the main task is to convince the party’s electorate that it is a danger,” Arunas Eidintas, member of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, said about the Polish Electoral Action during the sitting of his party’s Vilnius territorial branch on March 15.

According to Valentinas Mite, who is an analyst at the Prague-based U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe, many tensions would disappear if Poland would apologize for the annexation of Vilnius in the 1920s-1930s. Poland apologized for annexation of a piece of Czech territory in 1938. The apology was taken with anger by Polish society, where still a mentality of the 1930s prevails, but it helped Polish-Czech relations on the state level. Eldoradas Butrimas, a journalist at the daily Lietuvos Rytas, went to that Czech territory to investigate the claims by Tomasevski that there are 60 Polish schools there. The local Polish teachers were surprised: there were 44 schools 30 years ago there but now there are only 24. In 1938, Poland behaved there in the same way as they behaved in the Vilnius region, i.e. they, unlike the Nazis, closed non-Polish schools. “The Czechs often evaluate the occupation by Warsaw even more critically than the occupation by Hitler’s Germany. The Germans did not close the Czech schools and political parties, while the Poles did,” Jozef Szymeczek, president of the Czech Republic’s Polish Congress, which unites 28 Polish organizations, and professor of history in the University of Ostrava, told Lietuvos Rytas.

Polish activists managed to complain about the new Lithuanian law even to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before Grybauskaite signed the education law. Lithuania’s LNK TV daily political humor show Dviracio Sou, showed the following on such an occasion: a Polish Electoral Action politician with typical old-fashioned huge Polish-style moustaches comes to Grybauskaite’s office and complains to her that, after she signed the education law, Polish children will learn the Lithuanian language well and they will become lawyers and doctors and he will lose his electorate, adding to those complains that she should not sign the law so quickly because he had no time yet to complain to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il.