Date: 1 September 2018    Author: Paweł Ozdoba

Warsaw-Vilnius Relations as a Common Matter: the Polish Ethnic Minority in Lithuania

“Lithuania, my country!” – these words were written by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish poet and independence activist, in the first half of the 19th century to refer to his homeland. While today, despite much political turmoil and after many years, similar exclamations can still be heard from the 200,000 or so Poles living in Lithuania.

Rasos Cemetery, Vilnius, Lithuania, February 17, 2018. President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda and his wife Agata Kornhauser Duda during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Mausoleum of the Mother and the Son’s Heart, where the heart of Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s is enshrined. © Leszek Szymański (PAP)

Unfortunately, members of the Polish minority in Lithuania often face procedural difficulties and discrimination on the part of local authorities, which have been noticed in Warsaw. Meanwhile, few are aware that outside Poland’s current borders there are still some cities inhabited by Poles who constitute 60–70 percent of their population. For instance, such phenomenon can be observed in Lithuania, in particular in the Vilnius Region. As confirmed by some official statistics, the Polish community in Lithuania is perceived as an inseparable element of the country’s demography. It is estimated that one quarter of the inhabitants of the Vilnius Region claim to be of Polish nationality while the vast majority of them consider themselves as patriots who express a vivid interest in Poland’s current situation and engage in both social and cultural activities aiming to maintain national traditions.

As a result of some political decisions made right after the Second World War, Poland was deprived of the Vilnius Region. And even several years later, this issue keeps inflaming the hearts of many Poles. The region’s charm, traditions and history have been repeatedly immortalized both in Polish literature as well as in film. Poland’s relations with the Vilnius Region are evidenced by such symbols as the Gate of Dawn – along with the icon of Our Lady – that constantly attract many Poles living in various parts of the world and numerous groups of Polish pilgrims. In addition, both countries seem united by the fate of many distinguished Poles who considered Lithuania as their home; of whom include among others Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who played a key role in regaining Poland’s independence, Jesuit Andrzej Bobola, declared Saint of the Catholic Church, as well as poets Czesław Milosz – awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – and Adam Mickiewicz who is regarded as one of Poland’s Three Bards.

However, such rich and beautiful past traditions or common interests could be translated into equal rights of the Polish minority in Lithuania. And despite the fact that Lithuania signed the Treaty of Friendly and Neighbourly Cooperation with Poland in 1994, as well as both countries belonging to the EU, Poles living in the Vilnius Region often report abusive practices and unequal treatment by the Lithuanian authorities.

Feeling at home: 700 years of Polish presence in Lithuania

First, it should be noted that Lithuania is home to many Poles. These people are neither immigrants nor displaced people, many of whom have been living in the Vilnius Region for several generations. Moreover, the first migrations of Poles to the territory of today’s Lithuania took place as far back as 700 years ago with some important political declarations dating back to 1385; their subsequent decisions resulted in the creation of a common state organism. Under the Act of Kreva, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila (later Władysław II Jagiełło) committed himself to marry the Queen of Poland Jadwiga and to convert to Roman Catholicism. In addition, Jagiełło was obliged to attach both Lithuanian and Ruthenian lands to the Crown of Poland. While the Lithuanian sovereigns were preparing themselves to adopt the Roman Catholic religion in 1387, an increased influx of Poles to Lithuanian territory took place. At that time, not only did Polish priests and monks come to the lands northeast of the then-Polish Kingdom; the territories also became the destination for numerous townspeople, officials and soldiers.

The agreement concluded in Kreva fell shortly after the death of Queen Jadwiga; nonetheless, close relations between the two countries were constantly maintained and refreshed by subsequent acts such as the Pact of Vilnius and Radom, the Pact of Horodło, and the Union of Grodno (1432); the latter of which specifically aimed to rebuild good relations between the two countries.

One state – two nations

Nevertheless, the glory times of both Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were yet to come. On July 1, 1569, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania concluded an agreement in the city of Lublin, also referred to as the Union of Lublin. Under the treaty, a powerful state – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – could be formed and united with a common ruler, coat of arms and currency. In addition, both countries shaped their foreign and military policy with the aim of protecting their common interests. The decisions made by the then-rulers exerted a very large impact on the ever-increasing number of Poles in Lithuania. At that time, both peoples could be connected by common interests and the state, whose development became a priority for Poles and Lithuanians.

It is noteworthy that national awareness in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland kept developing in the mid-16th century; meanwhile, the magnates and Lithuanian nobility were undergoing gradual polonization. Thanks to the increasing popularity of the Polish language, it was possible to conduct cultural integration within the structures of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In addition, the development of the common state fostered further migration processes. The disintegration of this powerful state organism did not occur until the Third Partition of Poland in 1795; yet, in spite of this Polishness in Lithuania still managed to survive till modern times.

Following Poland’s return to the map of Europe, the state authorities made some political decision related to the creation of Central Lithuania, which eventually incorporated the Vilnius Region into Poland’s territory. At the time, the Vilnius Voivodship consisted of about 1.3 million inhabitants; of whom Poles constituted as much as 60 percent, while Lithuania’s capital became one of the most important cultural centres of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the country’s fifth largest city. Poland lost the Vilnius Region again as a result of some political changes that occurred after World War II. However, despite several dramatic events as well as some difficulties in integrating these areas within the USSR, the Polish community, whose representatives largely remained in their homeland, kept expressing a strong sense of national consciousness.

In the remaining parts of this article, there is no room to present any further the history and development of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; nonetheless, such a brief historical outline may help readers to understand – at least to some extent – the reasons behind the Polish presence on Lithuania’s present territory.

The Russian invader to reinforce anti-Polish sentiments

Nonetheless, the problems of the Polish community in Lithuania did not emerge overnight. The fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century opened the way for growing anti-Polish sentiments on the territory of Lithuania. The situation got more complicated in the second half of the 19th century after the failure of the January Uprising; for instance, at that time, it was forbidden to use the Polish language on the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania while Poles were treated with hostility. The conflict between Poles and Lithuanians was additionally exacerbated by the Russian invader. A similar state of affairs was maintained even after Poland regained its independence; even if a large part of the Vilnius Region could be then found within the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poles living on the Soviet-controlled territories encountered much more serious obstacles. In addition, the interwar period was marked by an ever-increasing level of de-Polonization, which eventually resulted in closing Polish schools and cultural institutions. To make matters worse, Poles could no longer use their surnames, and were obliged to use Lithuanian versions. Under Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship, members of the Polish minority were deprived of many rights and could not practice the likes of medicine or law. Some of the above-mentioned problems are faced by Poles even today.

Discrimination against Poles in Lithuania

Today, despite their common history, Poles in Lithuania often stress that they feel discriminated against. Although the Lithuanian authorities keep insisting on the importance of the Polish minority in some official statements, many Polish nationals are constantly facing various difficulties, as evidenced by some issues related to language and terminology. For instance, Lithuania’s State Language Act of 1995 provides that all inscriptions in the Republic of Lithuania shall be conducted in the national language. As a consequence, it is not possible to have Polish names of cities and towns – even for those inhabited mostly by representatives of the Polish minority – on road signs. In addition, under present law, it is prohibited to use Polish spelling in the names of Polish schools, as evidenced by the 2008 case where in the Lithuanian town of Lavaryshki, located in the Vilnius Region, the Polish community intended to name Emilia Plater – a participant of the November Uprising – the patron of the school. However, local authorities decided that this would be possible only if the school’s name was given the Lithuanian version of “Emilija Plateryte”. Thus, the Polish community living in the Vilnius district referred the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which was eventually dismissed due to some procedural errors.

Poles forced to use Lithuanian names and surnames

Under present law, Poles living in Lithuania cannot use the Polish versions of their first and last names. Instead, they are forced to use the Lithuanian versions of their names, which usually consist of adding masculine suffixes of “us” and “ius” and feminine endings “aite” and “ienie” to all Polish surnames. In 2009, the Constitutional Court examined an application of Lithuania’s Seimas (the legislative branch of government) concerning the possibility of writing both the name and surname in the national language; nonetheless, the final ruling did not turn out satisfactory for the Polish minority. According to the Court, the Polish form might be included in official documents, such as in passports, but it could be treated only in terms of its auxiliary role whereas the Lithuanian version would still be recognized as the only official form. Members of the Polish minority claim that the difficulties in using their own first and last names constitute a deliberate act on part of the Lithuanian authorities.

Antakalnis Cemetery, Vilnius, Lithuania, March 9, 2018. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument commemorating Polish soldiers who died in the Polish-Bolshevik war. © Rafał Guz (PAP)

Not all Poles are able to restitute their property

Poles living in Lithuania point out that the local authorities do not fulfil the basic provisions of the Treaty of Friendly and Neighbourly Cooperation. Another example of gross negligence, aiming to discriminate against the Polish minority, is the lack of solutions to some matters regarding the restitution of property lost by Poles as a result of Soviet decisions. The inhabitants of the Vilnius Region argue that a very large part of the applications for the return of nationalised property has not yet been considered. Moreover, representatives of the Polish minority have noticed a trend, according to which Lithuanian citizens are provided with preferential treatment as their applications are examined much more quickly.

Community Threatened with Ongoing Russification

Poles in the Vilnius Region appear afraid not only of being discriminated against by the Lithuanian authorities but also of the ongoing process of Russification, understood in terms of imposing Russian culture onto the public. According to the Lithuanian census of 2011, the Polish minority numbered slightly over 200,000 while the second largest community, the Russian minority, is estimated at 177,000. In addition, Moscow, which seeks to pursue a “divide and rule” strategy, is oftentimes responsible for the worsening relations between Poles and Lithuanians. After all, the fact of weakening both Poland and Lithuania appears beneficial to Russia. A similar policy has already been implemented over many years, both after the Second World War and in the early 1990s when the countries of the region were regaining their independence. It is noteworthy that Polish residents speak overtly about the omnipresent “Russian propaganda” being offered to the Lithuanians via easily accessible Russian media, which seem so popular and numerous that people in Lithuania increasingly tend to prefer them while abandoning Lithuanian-speaking TV stations and newspapers. Unfortunately, it is difficult to counterbalance the strength of the Russian media. Apart from having small budgets, Polish media are often underinvested and fought off by their competitors. Such was the case of the Polish-language daily Kurier Wileński (Vilnian Courier); the newspaper, which has been printed in Lithuania since 1990, has recently required subsidies by the Lithuanian state budget. With no support being granted, the only Polish newspaper published in Lithuania struggles and finds it difficult to compete with powerful competition.

Number of Polish schools is limited despite their successes

Poles living in the Republic of Lithuania also face problems in the domain of education. It is certain that the country has numerous Polish primary and junior high schools but in most cases, they are not subsidized to a satisfactory level. Moreover, Lithuania’s government keeps deliberating about the closing of Polish educational institutions. According to the Ministry of Education, there are too few students in Polish schools so their further financing does not appear profitable for the state budget. It needs to be mentioned that these institutions are sometimes financed by the Polish government as well as the Senate of the Republic of Poland. Even if the funds make it possible to purchase the necessary equipment as well as to perform some minor repairs, the schools remain rather underinvested. The Polish inhabitants of the Vilnius Region claim that the liquidation of Polish schools is essentially aimed at weakening the Polish minority.

In 2017, five Polish junior high schools (“gymnasiums”) were listed among Lithuania’s top schools, according to the Reitingai magazine. The top positions were occupied by John Paul II Gymnasium in Vilnius, ranked 21st, and Adam Mickiewicz Gymnasium, ranked 42nd.

Polish schools forced to conduct classes in Lithuanian language

Nevertheless, there are some other difficulties related to education. According to some information that appeared in July this year, Lithuanian politicians are seeking to reduce the importance of Polish language in Polish educational institutions. The bill provides that as much as 60 percent of such classes would be conducted in the Lithuanian language. Thus, if these proposals come into force, they will constitute yet another blow to the Polish education system in Lithuania. In 2011, the authorities introduced similar regulations that obligated Polish schools to run part of their classes in Lithuanian language. Thus, this new development may be perceived in terms of another step aimed at undermining the importance of Polish education. In addition, since 2000, Polish students in Lithuania are no longer required to pass Polish language in their secondary school final examinations.

Moreover, members of the Polish minority complain about the difficulties in accessing Polish classical literature, and  new editions of contemporary novels in Polish. This problem often occurs in smaller towns, where libraries are full of books only in Lithuanian and Russian. As for Polish editions, they are usually old and worn-out, which seems rather to discourage young readers. However, thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organizations, some institutions have managed to provide libraries with new copies in Polish, which translates into an increased readership, according to local residents.

Common interests as a hope for better relations

Despite the fact that Poland and Lithuania have been united by long-lasting traditions and a common history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, their current relations appear extremely complex. Both countries are neighbours and common members of international institutions, including the European Union and NATO. They are also united by shared economic interests as well as some other issues related to both energy and military security. However, relations between Warsaw and Vilnius have somehow cooled over the last few years; this did not change despite the close friendship between the then-Presidents of Poland and Lithuania: Lech Kaczyński and Valdas Adamkus, respectively. Unfortunately, the governments of both countries have not managed to work out any common strategy regarding the Polish minority in Lithuania. Following many years of neglect as well as some external interference in the relations between the two countries, the Polish-Lithuanian alliance has so far failed to bring about satisfactory results. Thus, the position of Poles living in Lithuania has gradually weakened while their potential is no longer capitalised upon.

Polish national minority to bring both countries together

Many argue that the period of coolness in Polish-Lithuanian relations is slowly fading away, which may ultimately translate into a stronger partnership on many levels. Friendship between the two countries could be additionally tightened by the patriotic and extremely active Polish community in Lithuania whose members have repeatedly signalled their willingness to participate in any possible talks. In addition, some representatives of the Polish minority living in the Vilnius Region have noticed an improvement in the relations between Warsaw and Vilnius. The same can be said about the increased level of trust between the two partners. Thanks to a mutual understanding and fight for common interests, both countries can be economically stronger and more secure. The first serious cues about the potential will to strengthen mutual cooperation appeared at the turn of 2017 and 2018, which were accompanied by a debate on the implementation of the Three Seas Initiative policy inaugurated by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda. Moreover, the Lithuanian army got involved in the celebrations of the National Day of Remembrance of the Cursed Soldiers. This was the second time that the Lithuanian army participated in Wolf’s Trail Run, which was met by great enthusiasm of Lithuania’s Polish community.

A better future is possible together

A possible thaw in Polish-Lithuanian relations – as well as a will to undertake some multidimensional cooperation – raises hope for building a new and better future. However, it is necessary to take decisive steps that will seek to strengthen the role of the Polish minority in Lithuania and its empowerment. The Polish authorities in Warsaw cannot take such decisions unilaterally. It is also vital to engage the Lithuanian government in further cooperation. The final outcome will appear beneficial not only for Poland and Lithuanian but also for the Polish community whose links to the Vilnius Region as well as their attitude can be described by the lyrics of the song by Polish-Lithuanian politician and musicologist Gabriel Jan Mincewicz: “Vilnius, my beloved land! I will not exchange anything for you, let me live with you and let me die!”

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