Discussing Vilnius-Warsaw relations

  • 2011-05-11
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

ASEXUAL HARASSMENT: Although Polish and Lithuanian presidents celebrate their countries’ independence days together, bilateral relations are troubled by harassment from Warsaw.

VILNIUS - On May 4, the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Center (EESC) organized an expert discussion named “Lithuanian Foreign Policy in Focus: Lithuanian-Polish Relations Reconsidered.” Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, former President Valdas Adamkus and other experts arrived to the center’s premises on Poskos Street to take part in the discussion, which was provoked by the EESC’s analytical report titled “Lithuanian-Polish Relations: Standstill of Bilateral Relations’ Agenda or Empty Strategic Partnership?” While the Russian factor is less visible in Lithuanian society (unlike in Riga or Estonia’s Narva, nobody celebrated the Russian WWII victory day of May 9 in the streets or parks of Lithuanian towns this year – Europe Day celebrations dominated Lithuanian public life on May 9), stabs in the back from Poland, such as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s ridiculous statement that the situation of Poles in Lithuania and Belarus are tantamount, raise concerns among Lithuanian politicians.

The EESC report suggests that the Polish anti-Lithuanian rhetoric can be explained by the domination of two competing nationalist right parties in Poland’s political arena. They are both using anti-Lithuanian rhetoric to gain support among a chauvinistic electorate, which is brought up in the traditional Polish narrative about Lithuanians as younger brothers who should obey the elder one, which is Poland, of course. Indeed, the opposition Democratic Left Alliance seems to be the only European-style chauvinism-free political party in Poland. The EESC report states that Polish-Lithuanian relations worsened due to a change in Polish foreign policy, which is now more in line with France and Germany regarding Russia.

Indeed, Warsaw’s recent behavior is weird. On April 19, Sikorski invited Loreta Zakareviciene, the Lithuanian ambassador in Warsaw, to explain an article on delfi.lt, which mentions a Lithuanian school director from the town of Salcininkai, describing Lithuania’s Polish schools as Hitlerjugend. It is probably the first such invitation in EU history. If after each controversial story in Poland’s media the Polish ambassador would be invited to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, he would need to live in some tent in the ministry’s yard (though he maybe used to Gadhafi’s tent because he worked as a diplomat of communist Poland in Libya after graduation from the Soviet diplomacy school in Brezhnev-era Moscow). Zakaraviciene’s interview on Lithuanian public TV suggests that Polish complaints are harassment for the sake of harassment, and some pretext for this can always be invented.

“I think our attitude maybe also contributed to a worsening of those [Polish-Lithuanian] relations, but more guilt lays on certain persons of the current Polish government who seek only satisfaction of their political ambitions and scoring political points,” Adamkus said at the EESC. Adamkus used to have perfect relations with Poland’s leftist President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Adamkus also used to be the right hand of Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski on the international stage. According to

Adamkus, during the negotiations over the Lisbon Treaty in Brussels, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lost patience with Kaczynski’s demands and proposed the exclusion of Poland from the EU, or degrading it to some lower status of EU membership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was tending to agree with Sarkozy. Then Adamkus said “no way” and negotiated a compromise between Kaczynski and the French-German duet. Kaczynski gave public thanks for that compromise to Sarkozy, not Adamkus, taking into account the specific attitude of Poles towards Lithuania, which could suggest, in fact, that actually Sarkozy was right then – chauvinist Poland has little to do with modern Europe.

Azubalis urged journalists not to dramatize Polish-Lithuanian relations. “I evaluate the relations as normal, which allow us to develop strategic bilateral relations,” he said, adding that he agrees with journalists’ remarks that an English-language text about the rights of ethnic minorities on the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry’s Web site would be useful. “Poland’s diaspora of 10 million people has 170 schools in the world, and almost 100 of them are in Lithuania. Since 1990, the amount of such schools increased by some 50 percent in Lithuania,” reads the EESC report. It is worth adding that those schools are financed by the Lithuanian state and it is very unusual in the Western world for a state to finance such a policy of society’s non-integration. 

The EESC report speaks rather positively about educational reform increasing the number of lessons in the Lithuanian language in Slavic schools and equalization of the level of the Lithuanian language exam in Lithuanian and Slavic schools of Lithuania. It will help graduates of Slavic schools to have a wider choice of careers, integrating into the society - the Vilnius street sweepers usually speak only in a mixture of Polish-Russian and can barely say anything in Lithuanian. They are products of the Soviet-era Polish and Russian schools.

The EESC report urges the Lithuanian government to talk more with local Poles. Anatolijus Lapinskas, who writes on Lithuanian-Polish relations for delfi.lt, speaking at the EESC stated that the possibility for such talks is limited due to the specifics of the Polish Electoral Action, the political party that claims to represent Lithuanian Poles. According to the EESC, this political party is loyal neither to Lithuania, nor to Poland – this political party’s activity is beneficial mostly to Russia.

“The political organization of Lithuanian Poles, the Polish Electoral Action, is not alienating from the principles of democracy in its program but, in reality, it acts like a communist party in some ‘bourgeois’ country in the past. There are no discussions inside the party, no doubts in the righteousness of its leader and contacts with state government are forbidden, but it constantly shouts loudly about oppressed and discriminated working people and organizes meetings and demonstrations to defend them. Isn’t the Polish Electoral Action of this kind? It just mentions the Lithuanian government, instead of the bourgeoisie and Lithuania’s Polish minority, instead of exploited working people. Talking to that minority about positive changes, or giving it a comparison with the Polish diaspora in other states, has no perspective at all because such ‘enemy’ propaganda, like the Voice of America in the past, is probably banned for ordinary members of that party. The numerous Polish media in Lithuania are completely in the hands of the Polish Electoral Action – this is why communication with ordinary Lithuanian Poles does not exist,” Lapinskas stated.

No wonder that the Polish Electoral Action has no interest in thinking about more down-to-earth issues – the EESC report states that direct foreign investment per capita in the Polish Electoral Action-ruled Salcininkai region is 200 times lower than the Lithuanian average. The EESC suggests economic help from the Lithuanian state for the Polish Electoral Action-dominated areas.

The EESC report suggests rethinking the issue of the writing of Polish names in IDs and bilingual street names in areas where Poles make up a significant part of the local population. The first one would be difficult to implement due to the opinion of the Constitutional Court, though such a move would be a highly symbolic gesture of goodwill – anyway, it would probably have practical importance only to some couple of hundred very enthusiastic Poles because, as a similar practice of Lithuanians in Poland shows, very few want to start the tiresome procedure of changing their names in agreements with banks, gas and electricity suppliers and so on. The second EESC proposition can meet some obstacles due to the historical context (there are no street signs in the Russian language in Estonia and Latvia). Sweden and the Swedish minority were not contradicting Finland’s independence and, therefore, Swedish inscriptions in Finland do not raise objections. Germany gave all possible excuses to France regarding a former aggressive policy and, therefore, inscriptions in German are possible in Alsace. Poland offered no regrets for the annexing of Vilnius from 1922-1939 – to the contrary, the annexation is glorified in Poland.

Meanwhile, some language-related incidents take place in the Vilnius region. Alvydas Germanas, Vilnius-based translator of EU directives and regulations into Lithuanian, likes to bike in the Vilnius region in his spare time. Last month he noticed a road sign near the bridge, stating “Neris River” in Lithuanian, was painted over. “It was written, on the asphalt nearby, Chcemy po polsku [“We want in Polish” in Polish],” Germanas told The Baltic Times.

Egidijus Meilunas, foreign affairs vice-minister and former Lithuanian ambassador to Warsaw, speaking at the EESC, stated that Lithuania should learn from Poland on how to defend its language abroad. That is a weird statement – politicians of the EU usually avoid interfering in other EU states’ matters on language-related issues.