Unrest spoils Polish Independence Day

  • 2011-11-17
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

ETERNAL BEST FRIENDS-ENEMIES: Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was the only foreign leader who participated in the Polish Independence Day celebration in Warsaw. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and his wife (seated, at left) listened to her speech in Warsaw’s main square.

VILNIUS - On Nov. 11, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite went to Warsaw to congratulate Poland on its independence day. According to the tradition established in the era of President Valdas Adamkus and President Lech Kaczynski, Lithuanian and Polish presidents are the only speakers to address the Polish troops and civilian crowds in Marshal Jozef Pilsudski Square in Warsaw each Nov. 11. Polish presidents also come to Vilnius to celebrate Lithuanian Independence Day each Feb. 16. The roots of such exceptional invitations go back to 1569, when Lithuania, weakened due to constant wars with Russia, created a confederation with Poland (though some tensions between Polish and Lithuanian nobilities continued to exist after 1569). In 1918, after more than a century-long Russian occupation, both countries re-established their independent states, though soon after this, they were solving their mutual territorial disputes in armed conflicts and a remote echo of these battles could be noticed on this year’s Nov. 11 as well.

“Your participation today, Madam President, is very valuable for us. We take it as confirmation of our close Polish-Lithuanian relations and as a sign of the will to act on those issues which still need dialogue and agreement,” Komorowski said in his speech. On Nov. 7, Miroslaw Sielatycki, Poland’s education deputy minister, stated at the Lithuanian-Polish joint commission on education that Poland wants Lithuania to recall Lithuania’s education law introducing more Lithuanian-language lessons in Slavic minority schools in Lithuania.

“Lithuanians know the price of freedom and, therefore, understand the feelings of Poles,” Grybauskaite said in her speech in Pilsudski Square. She urged the study of the legacy of Czeslaw Milosz, Lithuanian-Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1980, who was sympathetic to Lithuania.
When Grybauskaite spoke, anti-Lithuanian posters in the crowd at Pilsudski Square were shown by TVP, the Polish public TV. The posters urged to “stop discrimination of Poles in Lithuania” and condemned “the Lithuanian rule in the Wilno region.”
“Wilno” is the Polish name for Vilnius. There were also posters against Komorowski, accusing him of a lack of patriotism, in the crowd but they could be watched only on Polish Internet sites because TVP avoided showing them during the ceremony in Pilsudski Square.

Later on the same day, the anti-Lithuanian posters, according to gazeta.pl, migrated to Europe’s biggest annual ultra-right demonstration of some 15,000 radicals in the central streets of Warsaw, where they merged with posters stating “Down with Brussels!” The Lithuanian theme was not the main one during that ultra-right manifestation, which was organized by organizations rooted in pre-WWII Poland – the main targets for the hatred of the Polish ultra-right, according to gazeta.pl, are Jews, homosexuals and feminists. The main force of the ultra-right demonstration were the notorious fans of the Warsaw Legia and other Polish football clubs. The ultra-right manifestation provoked an attempt by some 1,500 Western European and local leftist anti-fascists to blockade the route of Polish nationalists.

“The police used all the resources available to break our blockade and allow the fascists to march, save using helicopter gunships against us. Thanks to this help from the police, the fascists were then able to march down some other side streets to their goal, a statue of Roman Dmowski, an inter-war Polish fascist,” wrote Paul Newbery of socialistworld.net who was proud that “one Solidarity member who was on the strike committee in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980” joined the anti-fascist action in Warsaw.

The police fought against the aggressive demonstrators. Central Warsaw turned into a battlefield: 40 policemen were injured and more than 200 demonstrators arrested. Almost half of the arrested, 92, were anti-fascists from Germany. Some other Western nationals were also arrested. The police used water-cannons and tear-gas. The demonstrators threw paving-stones at policemen and burned cars, including some buses and police cars and those of local TV stations. Firecrackers were thrown by ultra-rightist Polish football fans at the Polish presidential palace and the Russian embassy. No immediate protests came from the embassy.

On the evening of Nov. 11, Komorowski, not criticizing the content of the ultra-right demonstration, condemned the violence and involvement of foreign forces in the day’s battles. There were some flags of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Russia, Hungary and Slovakia in the ultra-right demonstration, but much larger foreign aid came to the anti-fascist counter-demonstration. Hundreds of anti-fascists arrived in Warsaw from Western Europe, mostly from Germany. They were backed by a group of some 15 anarchists who arrived from Belarus to protest against Polish fascists. They held a Russian-language poster stating “Nobody is forgotten, nobody is forgiven.” Back home, the Belarusian anarchists are the most radical fighters against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

Meanwhile, Grybauskaite used her visit to Warsaw to meet with leaders of the 15,000-strong Lithuanian community in Poland. “Taking into account the Polish government’s view on the Lithuanian minority and on Lithuanian education in Poland, we decided, for the first time in history, to donate 350,000 litas [101,000 euros] to two Lithuanian schools in Poland,” Grybauskaite said in the Lithuanian Embassy. During the last decade, half of Lithuanian schools in Poland were closed and two more schools are planned to be closed by 2013.

Vytautas Liskauskas (or Witold Liszkowski according to his Polish passport), head of the administration in the town of Punsk (or Punskas in Lithuanian - he received 99.9 percent of votes during the last local elections there in 2010) and member of the Social Democracy of Poland, stated that Lithuania already did a lot for his community: Vilnius built schools and a culture center and bought school buses for the Lithuanians in the surroundings of Punskas. This town was captured by the Polish army in 1920 during the Pilsudski-initiated military march on Vilnius.

The Lithuanians of Poland stated their complaints about their situation. The list of complaints is long and is also related to everyday harassment on ethnic grounds. Local Lithuanians recently built crosses in a cemetery near the town of Sejny on the graves of Lithuanian soldiers who perished defending this ethnically Lithuanian territory, which was part of the Lithuanian state for several centuries, from the Polish army in battles from 1918-1920. A local Polish priest, who administers the cemetery, was reluctant to allow this and demanded exhumation of the bodies to prove that they are, indeed, Lithuanians. Finally, he changed tactics - immediately after the construction of crosses over Lithuanian soldiers’ graves, some unknown people, at night, quickly erected two ‘counter-monuments’ decorated with anti-Lithuanian inscriptions and situated next to these Lithuanian graves: one cross states that Lithuanians killed Poles in the Paneriai district of Vilnius during the Nazi occupation, and another cross states that the Lithuanian army arrived in Punskas in 1920 with the help of the Red Army.

Other examples of Lithuanian complaints in that region: angry remarks from Poles when they hear Lithuanians speaking in the Lithuanian language among themselves in public places, and the lack of a painted crosswalk near the Lithuanian school in the village of Krasnogruda (Krasnagruda in Lithuanian), though such a crosswalk has to be painted near schools, according to laws.