Friday, September 16, 2011

Poland and Lithuania Scramble to Mend Broken Ties

By Matthew Czekaj

Polish-Lithuanian relations may not have been this bad since the 1920s and ‘30s. At the heart of the current dispute is an issue Warsaw and Vilnius has been struggling with off and on diplomatically since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc – namely, the status and treatment of the Polish minority within Lithuania.

In spring of this year, the Lithuanian government passed its latest language law, forbidding the use of any language other than Lithuanian to be spoken in school during geography, Lithuanian history and world history classes. Furthermore, all Lithuanian language High School matriculation examinations – heavier on Lithuanian literature than at independent minority-language schools – will now be standardized nation-wide by 2013. This law, which came into effect on September 1, has infuriated the ethnic Polish minority living in Lithuania. Teachers from the ethnic Polish schools in Lithuania walked out en masse in protest of the language law at the start of the month. It took an emergency visit from Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to talk them down. However, the teachers threaten to return on strike in the middle of September if the Lithuanian government does not repeal the law (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 12).

Ethnic poles number 230,000 in Lithuania, comprising around seven percent of the country’s population. Yet, they have continually been a spoiler in close Warsaw-Vilnius ties. The Polish minority has been allowed certain concessions in Lithuania, including running its own Polish-language schools. At the same time, the ethnic Polish community feels under siege by language laws designed to defend the primacy of Lithuanian in public life. In addition to the education-centric law that came into force in September, citizens of Lithuania are not allowed to spell their names on official documents like passports using letters not found in the Lithuanian alphabet. Warsaw feels [link in Polish] that the Lithuanians are breaking the Polish-Lithuanian Treaty of 1994 and are in breach of the Council of Europe Convention on National Minorities. Vilnius, on the other hand, is very sensitive to questions of its sovereignty and defense of Lithuanian culture.

Due to the education language law, relations have been on a downward spiral for more than a year, but the rhetoric and pressure has really been turned up on both sides in the past several weeks. On September 6, Lech Wałęsa, the famed Solidarity leader and first democratically elected president of modern Poland, turned down [link in Polish] the Lithuanian Presidential Order of Vytautas the Great, which he was awarded this year, noting his “deep concern” over the current situation of ethnic Poles living in Lithuania. Also citing the issue of name spellings, Wałęsa promised to accept the award if Vilnius reconsidered its language laws. The Lithuanian Prime Minister, Andrius Kubilius, countered in a radio interview he gave later, saying that, “Polish authorities do not assess the situation of the Polish minority in Lithuania according to objective criteria,” and are being misled by Polish diaspora organizations living in his country. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was much more forceful in her pronouncement on Lithuanian Radio, asserting that the Polish minority is lacking in loyalty [link in Polish] to the state, which enraged members and representatives of the ethnic Polish community. Perhaps most troublingly, the brewing Polish-Lithuanian conflict has been raising nationalistic sentiments. In August, street signs and a monument in Puńsk (Punskas), a majority Lithuanian borough in northeast Poland, were vandalized and covered in graffiti, which included radical Polish nationalist symbols.

Yet, the growing diplomatic crisis seems to have finally woken both sides to the immediate need to smooth over relations between the two Central East European states. President Bronisław Komorowski [link in Polish], whose family derives its roots in Lithuania, spoke of the need to resolve the thorny issues dividing Poles and Lithuanians because of the many shared interests between the two countries. Furthermore, out of Tusk’s visit to Lithuania, the two states formed a joint bi-national committee [link in Polish] to work out the issue over language use in Lithuanian schools. The committee is to include representatives from both countries’ educational ministries as well as members of the Polish minority organizations.

This is a positive and much needed sign for Polish-Lithuanian relations. Indeed, the two countries share a border, but also a number of vital interests. Poland and Lithuania are both very exposed to energy disruptions coming from Russia and Belarus, and need to collaborate closely to secure themselves via oil and gas pipeline connections, joint work on nuclear power and so on. A recent setback in beginning construction of the Poland-Lithuania gas interconnector, in fact, underscores the need for political agreement and cooperation between Warsaw and Vilnius to ensure the project does not slip permanently off the agenda (BNS, September 1). The difficult case of Belarus, a country of intimate concern to both Poland and Lithuania, would also benefit greatly from Warsaw and Vilnius’ ability to coordinate their policies at the highest levels. A final area where the two nations could achieve more together than alone is European strategy toward Moldova. This year, Lithuania chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), while Poland holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers between July and December of 2011. Since both the EU and OSCE are active in the Moldova-Transnistria peace process as well as encouraging and supporting Moldova’s path toward European integration, more tangible Polish-Lithuanian agenda coordination would be invaluable. Yet, with both giving up their European leadership positions on December 31, the window for joint action is closing. Polish and Lithuanian diplomats will need to hurry.

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