Vilnius (Wilno), the capital of Lithuania. Wikimedia. Public domain.Poles are the biggest ethnic minority in Lithuania. There are over 200,000 Poles (6.6% of the population) and 177,000 Russians (5.8%) in the country of 3 million people. Russians are scattered throughout the country, but Poles are concentrated in south-eastern Lithuania and comprise a local majority in the Salcininkai (Soleczniki in Polish) and Vilnius (Wilno) districts, which both comprise the Vilnius region.
This Polish-inhabited land in Lithuania has been causing bitterness between Lithuania and Poland for years. In 1920-1939 it had been a part of Poland (together with the Lithuanian capital Vilnius), and it was given back to Lithuania at the beginning of the WW2 by the Soviets.
In the tumultuous 1988-1991 period, political leaders in these two regions were trying to establish an autonomous Polish territorial unit with assistance from the Kremlin. But their plans fell apart after the Moscow putsch, and the central Lithuanian government took matters into their own hands.
These painful historical memories still haunt Lithuanians and obstruct dialogue between the state and its Polish citizens.
For years Lithuania, Poland and Lithuanian Poles has been debating the so-called ‘W problem’ - whether to allow the original spelling of Polish names in Lithuanian passports and whether to start using topographic names in both languages in the Vilnius region.
The Lithuanian alphabet lacks certain symbols, such as W, which are essential in the Polish language. Moreover, the existing legislation protects Lithuanian as the one and only state language. This also creates problems in the educational sector, as some Poles see the strengthening presence of the Lithuanian language in the Polish school curriculum as an assimilation process.
Recent events in eastern Ukraine fuelled the conflict even further. Although on the state level both Poland and Lithuania have the same attitudes towards Russia, fears of Polish separatism or autonomy in the Vilnius region have been renewed.
Fears of separatism
A Facebook page called Wilenska Republika Ludowa (People’s Republic of Vilnius) appeared at the end January 2015, causing a big stir in Lithuania. The Prosecutor's Office has even started an official investigation to find out if this page is anti-constitutional.
But is this fear grounded? Hardly. First of all, there is no support from Warsaw for such autonomist claims. As for people in the region, they are not so hard-blooded, thinks Ana Dauksevic, a Lithuanian Polish journalist from Vilnius: “Both Poles and Lithuanians in the region have a similar mentality. They are the first to shout that something is wrong, but the last to take concrete steps. Even if someone decides that they want war, I don’t think that they would get a lot of supporters - people would rather take a pitchfork and go to the street instead of going to work.”
“I can’t imagine that the Vilnius region would become another Abkhazia, Ossetia or Donbass. Even if Russia starts military provocations and sends little green men, they will not get any support from the locals. However, as we Poles are very passive, there probably will be no resistance either,” adds Artur Zapolski, the head of Polish Discussion Club, a grass-roots organisation from Vilnius, which works on the civic engagement of Polish minority.
Everyone is to blame
Nevertheless, even if there is no physical border between the Vilnius region and the rest of Lithuania, a gap between the Poles and the Lithuanians is far from closing.
From one side, the charismatic leader of the Akcja Wyborcza Polaków na Litwie (AWPL, or Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania) Valdemar Tomaszevski is not coy in his anti-Lithuanian and pro-Russian sentiments and uses them in his everyday rhetoric. He has a very pragmatic reason for this, namely the votes of the Lithuanian Russian minority, but by aligning Lithuanian Poles with their ‘cousins’ Lithuanian Russians, he strengthens negative image of Lithuanian Poles in the eye of the majority.
The State Security Department of Lithuania listed some, albeit unnamed, Lithuanian Polish politicians as a potential threat to the state in its 2014 report on state security. The report highlighted their demands for ‘exclusive rights for the Vilnius region people’ and for their cooperation with pro-Kremlin party, the Russian Alliance, in elections.
But Tomaszevski cannot get all credit for the closeness of Poles and Russians in Lithuania. While their respective ‘motherlands’ do not see eye to eye, both ethnic minorities tend to take Russia’s standpoint.
A recent poll showed that non-Lithuanians, including Poles, opt for Russian, and not Lithuanian mass media. 61% of non-Lithuanians watch Russian TV at least once per day. “We all know how propaganda works...If they hear the same side all the time, and they are being told that Lithuanians hate Poles and other ethnic minorities, they decide to support ‘their brothers the Russians’ instead of angry Lithuanians,” Dauksevic explained.
The same poll showed that national minorities tend to support Russia more than the Lithuanian majority does. Only 16% of ethnic minority respondents blamed Russia for the conflict in Ukraine, compared to 55% of Lithuanian respondents.
Russification of Poles, and not the issue of bilingual street signs and documents, is the biggest current problem, according to Zapolski and other experts of the region.
Lithuanian politicians and media, especially the more publically active right-leaning contingent, also play their part in distancing Poles. For example, they position the Lithuanian language as the main pillar of Lithuanian identity, which is and must be protected by the Constitution and special laws.
Also, a recent change in the education law stipulates that there shall be the same requirements in the state language exam in minority and in Lithuanian schools, instead of the previous system of different exams for native and non-native Lithuanian speakers. Instead of providing equal higher education opportunities, it regularly brings the Poles to the streets demanding affirmative action policies.
The Lithuanian Poles are also constantly reminded that their linguistic demands are unfounded and Lithuania is the only country, apart from Poland, where they can get education in their mother tongue from pre-school to university.
A potential way out
One thing is clear: current majority attitudes towards ethnic minorities, embedded in a lack of trust and political will to cooperate on both sides, is in line with Kremlin’s interests.
A potential way out is a law on minority rights, which Lithuania hasn’t had since 2010. The last project was proposed by the AWPL, and wasn’t favoured by the majority of Lithuanian politicians, as it foresaw giving more linguistic rights to national minorities, including bilingual topographical names in minority regions. This part was later deleted, but the voting has been delayed several times.
Another legal measure that could bring Lithuanians and Poles closer together, is the highly debated law on the spelling of names in official documents, as its amendments have a potential in solving the ‘W problem’ in favour of Poles by allowing the original spelling based on Latin alphabet.
“It seems that these problems are rather symbolic, but the state’s reluctance to solve it widens the gap between the Polish minority and the Lithuanian majority,” says Zapolski.
Another strategic step would be to invest more into media in Russian (and Polish) languages, to counteract the one coming from Kremlin.
Some minor retreat from the domineering protectionism of the state language would allow more civic inclusiveness of Lithuanian ethnic minorities and Tomaszevski would lose his main argument against the Lithuanian majority. Even more importantly, it would take the trump card out of the Moscow’s hand.