The Polish are treated unjustly in Lithuania

Longin Komołowski

An ongoing discussion for many years, on Polish and Lithuanian relations and a role of the Polish minority in these relations in Lithuania, has considerably become more rigorous in the recent days.
The role of the chairman in the Association 'Polish Community', in which I have been speaking about Polonia and Poles living abroad, allows to keep the optics slightly different from official government spokesmen, and also gives an opportunity to maintain an opinion which is independent from current tendencies in Foreign Policy and more thorough consideration for the position of the most interested, that is, the Polish in Lithuania.

Shadows of the Past

It is a right thing to say that we have indeed been convinced for years that Polish-Lithuanian relations were fundamental in the policy of the two countries. It resulted from the intensive current contacts, declarations of politicians, elites' belief about common interests towards the countries of the 'old' EU and Russia, and also two factors partly escaping from a cold and diplomatic analysis - the common historical past and a numerous Polish minority present in Lithuania. This common past, commemorated in the national consciousness more through literature and visual art rather than real historical knowledge, made Poles accept the whole Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth heritage. The Polish are deeply convinced that their attitude towards that political body and the heritage is approved by other nations inhabiting vast lands of the I Commonwealth - the Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. We often forget the expenses recompensed by the two nations, both political and cultural ones, traumas and complexes which influence politics as much as deliberately calculated interests. Returning to the unquestionable statement about the strategic partnership, we consider just these calculations and our emotions, taking no account of the Lithuanian trauma caused by the times of the common statehood or the beginning of the twentieth-century statehood of the both nations, which is difficult for the Lithuanians to accept. It seems that Poland, noticing and appreciating those strategic common interests, showed a lot of its good will considering Lithuanian emotions and did not use forms of ultimatum in talks about a complex of problems concerning the Polish minority in Lithuania. It is certainly difficult, despite a good will, to treat the establishment of the Polish Charter as a hostile move of the Polish diplomacy characterized by imperialism.
The Charter is not directed at anything but is only a document certifying a variety of rights whose primary purpose is to cultivate the national identity among the Poles in Eastern Europe.

Issues that divide us

Besides the spelling of Polish names and surnames, Polish names of towns and streets and the controversial Education act, the complex of problems dividing Poland and Lithuania also include a fundamental issue concerning land return in Vilnius. However, if we speak about the first three controversial issues we must accept the fact that they are an expression of a long-term Lithuanian politics whose aim is to deprive the minority of privileges helpful in maintaining the national identity and lead to Lithuanization among the local Poles, which spread over several generations. A part of Lithuanian politicians even speak about bringing back Lithuanian strays into the bosom of their mother-land. A slightly different nature lies in a dispute concerning land return. Here we deal with an attempt to make Poles a subject of rights or special official practices excluding equal treating of all citizens, as far as the restitution of land in Vilnius and its surroundings is concerned.
The purpose of this policy is, certainly, economic weakening the Poles in Vilnius and c a change in demographic relations to the benefit of ethnic Lithuanians.
None of these problems is new. Attempts to solve them were also made in the past. It was written many times about the spelling of surnames and names of towns and also depriving Poles of Vilnius material heritage. Here I will refer to an appearing statement that the only new problem in the Polish and Lithuanian relations is the regulations of the education law. The law is new indeed, whereas a long-term process is a consistent policy of the Lithuanian educational authorities aiming at weakening the Polish education in Vilnius, reducing its attractiveness in parents' and students' eyes, and diminishing the role of Polish language as a language of instruction in the education process. The new law is only another move stimulating the policy realized for several years. We only need to mention that the whole investment process in Polish schools in Lithuania was passed onto the shoulders of local governments in which there is the majority of Poles and, also, the Polish country which, via the Polish Senate and the 'Polish Community', has already renewed and modernized probably all Polish schools in Lithuania. At the same time, when the Lithuanian Government refused to grant funds for the investment activities in Polish schools, the construction of modern Lithuanian-speaking schools in towns mostly inhabited by Poles was carried out. The purpose of that activity was to attract Polish children to the Lithuanian school and close down the Polish school due to the lack of students. It is obvious that the cost of one student in the minority schools must be slightly higher than in others. It is natural where the equalization of the schools status and education level is of high importance.
The Lithuanian Government does not accept that fact, and throws the responsibility of supporting those schools onto Polish non-governmental organizations and Polonia budget of the office of the Senate of Poland.

Tightening the screws

Observing the Lithuanian politics towards Polish education, it is difficult to agree with the opinion sometimes expressed, that in other controversial issues on the spelling of surnames and names of towns, there was a real will on the Lithuanian side to deal with those matters, in a spirit of respecting rights of national minorities. The past several years, beginning from the aforementioned agreement from April 1994, are a string of unfulfilled declarations and promises accompanied also by gradual and consistent 'tightening the screws'. The subject of those practices was not only the president Lech Kaczyński. All official Polish visits, at the level of presidents, marshals, prime ministers always included a package of issues concerning Poles in Lithuania. We have already got to know the effects of the assurances made during conversations.
Rejection of Andrius Kunilius' Governmental Law on spelling of surnames by the Lithuanian Parliament and rejection of the party forming the government by other votes are included in the whole series of events which over the past years have gradually been degrading the status of the Polish minority in Lithuania.
As far as it can be accepted that purposes and priorities in the Lithuanian Foreign Policy are in fact changing, it is difficult to admit that, consequently, the policy towards the Polish minority is changing. The policy has been consistent for years and is aiming at achieving one goal, apart from the fact that only its form has undergone a change: from the 'creeping' one into a completely public.
Lithuania stopped perceiving Poland as its strategic partner; it gave a different status to the State Polish-Lithuanian relations than in the past, so it resigned from using a kind of anaesthesia to implement its politics towards the Polish minority. Polish priorities have changed as well. It is not possible to accept a statement appearing in Lithuania that both countries stopped fighting against Russia and, therefore, their alliance has broken up. Lithuania and Poland were fighting not against Russia but for their rights to their own subjectivity in Foreign Policy, protection of their own economic space and keeping their control over strategic branches of the economy. Moreover, they are still fighting for them, although they have defined the means leading to the goal in different ways. In my deep belief, as a result, that modification has not brought any change in the status of Poles in Lithuania - it has only made it more visible, not to say - more obvious to everyone.
There remains a question whether in Polish politics the 'Jagiellonian' idea has been replaced by the 'Piast' one and how that change influenced the Polish minority in Lithuania. In fact the change of the policy has come, as it had been predicted by the Prime Minister Radosław Sikorski in the published text in the Polish daily 'Gazeta Wyborcza' of his time.
However, that change does not imply the cold relations with Lithuania. This coldness in various spheres - such as Polish minority case or Orlen investment - has existed before and resulted from other conditions. In fact both parties began to react to old problems in different ways. It is not possible to accept a thesis saying that Poland built good relations with Lithuania in the past, at the expense of Polish minority in Vilnius. There is a more principal statement here that warm relationships with Lithuania, in Polish politicians' opinion, were beneficial for Poles living there and, gradually, should lead to their positive solutions of all controversial issues. It did not happen so because, as I have already mentioned, the Lithuanian politics, in this respect, did not undergo bigger changes and the present Lithuanian government made it only more public. As much as the authors of the Polish politics can be accused of their naivety towards Lithuania in the past, turning a blind eye to today's obvious Lithuanian actions in expression would be just an ostentatious result of the lack of concern about the compatriots' fate in Lithuania. It is obvious that both nations need a discussion conducted by scholars not politicians, about many past events interpreted differently and probably even about such a risky idea like Polish autonomy in Lithuania, allegedly agreed upon by Jaruzelski and Gorbaczow. However, it is impossible to accept a thesis that only that discussion or a Rise of civic nations in Lithuania and Poland will result in improvement of the Poles' status in Lithuania and will change the Lithuanian politics in this respect. Because of historical conditions it will not happen so quickly both in Poland and Lithuania and delay in meeting the expectations of the Polish minority in Lithuania till that moment does not predict its long existence.
Longin Komołowski - the chairman of the Association 'Polish Community'


"Niedziela" 38/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: