SOME 50 HOURS BEFORE THE TRAGEDY: Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Polish President Lech Kaczynski, during his last visit to Vilnius on April 8.
VILNIUS - The former Lithuanian Grand Duchy’s town of Smolensk will have a mysterious meaning in the Polish language now. On April 10, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria Kaczynska (whose mother was from the Vilnius region) and several dozen members of the Polish political and military elite were killed in a plane crash near the Russian town of Smolensk. The delegation intended to honor 22,000 Polish army officers who were killed by Stalin near Smolensk during WWII. On April 8, Kaczynski made his last foreign visit. It was made to Lithuania. On April 11, the Lithuanian government announced April 12-14 and Kaczynski’s funeral day of April 18 as four days of national mourning in Lithuania for those who died in the plane crash of April 10.
On April 10, the Polish Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski became the interim president of Poland. Within 14 days he must announce the presidential election, which should be held within 60 days from the date of that announcement. According to social surveys, Conservative Liberal Komorowski was the leading candidate for the post of president in the presidential election which, before Kaczynski’s death, was scheduled for the fall of this year (though now he can face strong competition from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of Lech Kaczynski, in case he decides to run for the post of president). “I’m Lithuanian,” Komorowski was always saying to Lithuanian delegations, emphasizing that he is the offspring of the Lithuanian nobility with roots in the northern Lithuanian town of Rokiskis. He does not hide his pro-Lithuanian sympathies and it means that Lithuanian-Polish relations should not worsen despite the death of Kaczynski, who used to visit Lithuania several times per year. Komorowski stated that if he is elected, his first foreign visit will be to Lithuania.
On the day of the plane crash, Lithuanian public TV changed its program to broadcast Mass from the Vilnius Cathedral, with the participation of President Dalia Grybauskaite, former President Valdas Adamkus and all other state leaders of Lithuania as well as to show interviews with Lithuanian politicians who knew Kaczynski well. Adamkus, who took many flights with Kaczynski in the plane of the Polish president, said that Kaczynski had a fear of heights and avoided looking out the plane’s window. Kaczynski could not speak any other language than Polish, and it allowed Adamkus, who speaks many languages, including Polish, to be his mediator during EU states’ sessions. Adamkus also stated that Kaczynski was a great friend of Lithuania. Grybauskaite and Adamkus will go to Krakow to participate in the Polish president’s funeral ceremony on April 18.
On April 8, two days before his tragic death, Kaczynski met with Grybauskaite in Vilnius. It was his last foreign visit. Both presidents mostly discussed the gas pipeline construction which would connect Poland and Lithuania.
“We have decided to seek that the construction of the gas connection between Poland and Lithuania is declared a priority project of the European Union and that this project receives full European support. Our bilateral cooperation was very significant for the whole of Europe already as early as 600 hundred years ago. I would be very happy if the strategic partnership between Lithuania and Poland benefits our countries, nations and the whole of Europe,” Grybauskaite said during the press conference of both presidents.
Recently, shale gas was found in Poland. The expectations are that the amount of gas could be so huge that Poland will have no need for Russian gas supplies anymore. In case this finding is confirmed in the coming months, Poland itself will become a gas exporter, which could diminish the exports of Russian Gazprom to the EU by one-third.
During the last visit of Kaczynski, on April 8, the Lithuanian parliament rejected the proposition by the Lithuanian government to allow the writing of Latin letters, which are absent in the Lithuanian alphabet, in Lithuanian passports and ID cards. Emanuelis Zingeris, MP of the ruling Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats and supporter of this government’s proposal, described the proposition as “the W issue.” The letter “w” is absent in the Lithuanian alphabet and is replaced with the letter “v” in Lithuanian passports. The issue is important not only for women who are married to foreigners, but also to the Polish minority in Lithuania. The people, who describe themselves as Poles, make up 6.2 percent of the Lithuanian population. They are the second largest ethnic group in Lithuania, leaving the ethnic Russians, who make up five percent of the Lithuanian population, in third place.
“Our linguists say that a name is the sign of the individual, which should be protected by law. It is a European tradition. Lithuanians in Poland have such a right,” Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said, trying to convince MPs to support the proposal.
“Do you also want to legalize Chinese, Arabic and Slavic letters in Lithuanian passports?” Social Democrat MP Andrius Sedzius shouted ironically, probably having in his mind the Cyrillic alphabet by saying “Slavic.”
Most of the MPs were taking into account historical animosities related to the fact that in 1920, the Polish army, breaking the Lithuanian-Polish truce agreement, entered Vilnius and created the small pro-Polish state named Middle Lithuania. From 1922-1939, the Vilnius region, where Lithuanian culture then was harshly persecuted by the Polish authorities, belonged to Poland. From 1920-1939, Lithuania considered the Polish occupation of the Vilnius region as illegitimate.
“My family’s four generations lived in Vilnius. My grandfather experienced various limitations under the Polish rule. However, we should not behave towards Poles as they behaved with us,” Mantas Adomenas, MP of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats, said, supporting Kubilius.
However, only 30 out of 104 MPs who attended the session in the parliament supported Kubilius’ proposal. The proposal got no “yes” vote, even from Audronius Azubalis, who is foreign minister and MP of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats. A big part of this party’s MPs decided that they should not irritate that part of their electorate, which has rather primitively nationalistic views. “I would like to thank those 30 MPs who voted in favor of moving westwards, not eastwards,” said Jaroslav Narkevic, MP of the small political party named the Polish Electoral Action, which joined the Order and Justice Party’s faction in the parliament. He is known as Jaroslaw Narkiewicz in the Polish-language Lithuanian press, but he is Jaroslav Narkevic, according to his Lithuanian passport.
The most passionate opposition to Kubilius’ proposal came from his party colleague, MP Gintaras Songaila, who registered his own draft law which would allow the writing in passports of Polish and other non-Lithuanian-origin names in their original forms, in case they are in Latin letters, with certain restrictions: this could be done not on the main page of passport, but on another passport page, while the main page would be written in Lithuanian letters only, according to Songaila’s proposal. “Such practice exists in Latvia. Poland has no criticism of Latvia,” Songaila said. Songaila’s dissatisfaction with Kubilius’ liberalism on this issue was so big that last month he even unsuccessfully attempted to initiate removal of Kubilius from the post of prime minister during the meeting of MPs of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats.
“It would be impossible to think about banning for Lithuanians and other minorities in Poland writing their names in their native language,” Kaczynski said during a press conference in Vilnius on April 8.
There are very few ethnic Lithuanians, living in Poland, who decided to write their original Lithuanian name in their passports because it could be related to making changes in many documents. The same would be true with Poles in Lithuania in case of success of Kubilius’ proposal. However, such a move would be a highly symbolic gesture of goodwill.