Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

R E G I O N A L   R E L A T I O N S:
The Conquest of Pragmatism
A new chapter in Polish-Lithuanian relations

Joanna Rohozinska

Poles and Lithuanians share a long and intertwined history. Though the famous words of Adam Mickiewicz, the19th-century poet claimed by both Poland and Lithuania (and also by Belarus) as a national bard, "Litwa - oczyzna moja" (Lithuania - my homeland), have been repeated ad nauseum, their lasting relevance cannot be denied.

The recent (17 August 1999) conviction and sentencing of five former local government councilors from the Salcininkai (Soleczniki) region, four of whom were Poles, to two to three and a half years imprisonment for attempting to establish so-called Polish Autonomy in the Vilnius region in the early 90s, temporarily raised the specter of Polish-Lithuanian animosity. Polish senators who observed the trial expressed outrage at the verdict, deeming it a political rather than a criminal decision. According to Senator Anna Bogucka-Skowronska, it showed the hostility of the Lithuanian state towards the Polish minority. Senator Bogucka-Skowronska and the other observing senators went on to call for the cooling of Polish relations with Lithuania.

Former Polish Ambassador to Lithuania, Professor Jan Widacki, was quick to rebuke the senators' behavior as "plain stupid." He added that many Poles residing in Lithuania did not share the aspirations of the autonomists and were, to the contrary, outraged by their aims from the start. Widacki maintained that Lithuania had the right to independence, which obviously includes the right to try and convict those who act against state interests.

This case raised two interrelated issues: Lithuanian minorities policy, particularly towards Poles, and Lithuanian-Polish relations. The two are inextricably bound, as the stability and strength of Polish-Lithuanian relations will further both states' primary foreign policy objective: integration into Western organisations. Additionally, several bilateral agreements have been concluded between the two states, as well as between a number of joint institutions, which continue to discuss the most important issues of common interest - including the preservation and assurance of national rights - on a regular basis.

Large minority groups have the potential of destabilising a state and interfering with international relations. This is true in contemporary East Central Europe and the CIS (witness Yugoslavia, and several areas within the Caucasus) as much as it was in the inter-war Lithuanian Republic.

According to data compiled in 1997, seven per cent of the 3,707,200 people who live in Lithuania are Poles (8.2 per cent are Russians and 1.5 per cent Belarusans). At the beginning of the 1998/1999 school year, 71 out of the 2,272 state secondary schools in Lithuania were taught in the Polish language. Poles also maintain one of two active national minority political organisations, the Lithuanian Poles' Electoral Action (the other is the Lithuanian Russian's Union), which polled at 3.1 per cent of the vote to the Seimas and ranked as the seventh most popular party.

Room for improvement

The conquest of pragmatism marks a new chapter in Polish-Lithuanian relations, which were previously marred by mutual hostility driven by nationalist sentiment and irredentism. Polish-Lithuanian relations at the close of the century are undeniably better than they were at its beginning, or specifically in the inter-war period. Part of the reason why relations were so hostile in the inter-war period lies in the way in which the Lithuan ian state was resurrected, in 1918, and the long common history it shared with Poland, which was "reborn" in the same year.

The Polish and Lithuanian crowns were joined in the Union of Lublin in 1569, creating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which encompassed parts of present-day Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Poland and right-bank Ukraine. This month actually marked the 430th anniversary of the Union. Commemorations included a week-long symposium in Lublin, entitled "The Legacy of the Union of Lublin and European Integration." Participants included historians from the region, Polish and Lithuanian parliamentarians and diplomats from several Europeans states. The Vice-Marshal of the Sejm, Jan Krol, said that in their current aspirations of joining the process of European integration, Poland and Lithuania should take lessons from the Union of Lublin.

One must keep in mind that the Lithuanian "nation" (indeed any "nation") is a relatively modern concept, dating back only to the middle of the last century. Prior to that, the distinction between Poles and Lithuanians (or Belarusans and Ukrainians for that matter) was almost strictly based on economic status and religion. Polish identification was a reflection of status and was independent of ethnic identity. The Polish language and Roman Catholic religion were cultural trappings acquired to reflect a growth in economic status.

During this period, the Lithuanian language was relegated to being only the language of the peasantry. The great noble families, which characterised the area and marked its landscape with their vast and wealthy estates and were regarded as the bastions of Polish culture under the Partitions (1772, 1793, 1795), were mainly of local origin. Their members had converted to Catholicism, and used the Polish language (thereby becoming "Polish") in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Under the Partitions, the Polish language was repressed by the authorities and this, combined with the general declining fortunes of Poland as a European power, made Polish culture less attractive. These factors also coincided with the Lithuanian "national awakening" which encouraged the assertion of a distinct Lithuanian ethnic identity.

Therefore, what one witnessed at the end of the 19th century were increasing tensions between Poles (whether they were Polonised Lithuanian families or ethnically Polish) and "pure" Lithuanians who began demanding an independent Lithuanian state. The end of the First World War did not bring peace to this region, as Poland engaged in no less than six conflicts with its neighbours, the most important being the Soviet-Polish War, which ended with the Treaty of Riga in 1921.

Poland considered Lithuania, particularly the corridor running from Suwalki (in present-day north-eastern Poland) in a north-eastern line encompassing Vilnius (known to Poles as Wilno), as an intrinsic part of Poland. Obviously, the Lithuanian nationalists disagreed, which resulted in extremely frosty inter-war relations between the two states. In fact, the two had no formal relations until the very end of the inter-war period, minorities and territorial revisionism being the sticking points and the outlet for nationalist sentiments. (N.B. Poland had been gained control over the city of Vilnius in 1919 due to a coup d'etat staged by General Zeligowski - seemingly on his own initiative, but backed by Pilsudski. This, of course, caused great acrimony. As a result, there was significant hostility between the two states, but no formal diplomatic relations were established until Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Beck forced the Lithuanian government into relations in 1939 - a little late for both states)

Nervous states

Inter-war Poland and Lithuania were nervous states, highly suspicious of their neighbours and self-conscious of their existence. External concerns had a huge impact on internal issues, particularly the question of national minorities. National goals were paramount in government policy and always emphasised the need to build, and maintain, a strong state. This situation stressed the importance and interests of the majority, while encouraging the minorities to think increasingly in nationalistic terms.

Both states had a multi-national character, and the consequence of a nationalistic government policy was that the national minorities in these states developed strong national movements of their own. The new states faced a long list of intractable problems. The Poles' situation was not bettered by a series of feeble governments which could not hold positions long enough to pursue, or implement, any consistent policy.

For minorities on either side of the border, overstating mistreatment at the hands of the state supported arguments for reviewing the borders that were being presented at higher levels. Conversely, the Polish emphasis on the exaggeration of these claims served to justify the country's retention of the extensive territories allocated it by the Versailles Treaty, as well as those gained through the Treaty of Riga.

During the inter-war period, Polish and Lithuanian propaganda was also aimed at assuaging the fears of the Allies and ensuring their continued support. However, in the wake of the Second World War, defending the inter-war record was necessary in order to demonstrate the viability of the territories as they existed prior to 1939 and to decry the Soviet occupation.

Between 1920 to 1931, 19 nationalities from thirteen countries submitted 525 petitions to the League of Nations, claiming violations of minority rights; 155 of these were leveled against Poland, compared to 34 for Lithuania.

Looking westward

As in the inter-war period, since the casting off of the Russian/Soviet yoke in 1989 to 1991, both Poland and Lithuania have been striving to convince the West of their abilities to conform to Western (democratic) norms of behaviour. This is especially the case on the issue of human rights, including treatment of national minorities, which has acted as a testing ground for the states' respect and equal treatment of all citizens.

In the inter-war period, both states' domestic policies were largely dictated by the Versailles Minorities Treaty (28 June 1919 - ratified 20 January 1920) and were to be policed by the League of Nations. Participation in the European system was conditional on the unquestioning acceptance of all stipulations - whether they were favourable for the pursuit of domestic interests or not.

While participation and integration into Western structures were desperately sought by the new states, by the end of the inter-war period these did not prove to be strong enough draws, nor was adherence to the rules stringently enough enforced, to sustain cooperation and good relations among the neighbours. The problem was one of too small a carrot and not a big enough stick.

The metaphor of sticks and carrots has certainly risen again in the post-Communist world. But the main difference is that this time around the West is stable and largely unchallenged. At the moment, there are no alternatives to Western economic and defense structures, and exclusion from these structures could lead to economic and political instability - or at least this is the assumption that the foreign policies seem to be working from. Additionally, despite being subjected (again) to domination by their Russian (Soviet) neighbour for the past 50-plus years, both Lithuania and Poland have emerged more unified and certain of their viability as states.

These days, Lithuania and Poland have far more to gain through mutual co-operation than through the pursuit of strictly nationalist goals. Given this new balance, it would be folly for the Polish government to risk its currently good relationship with Lithuania, by intervening on behalf of the Polish minority. Moreover, it is in the Lithuanian government's best interest to keep its minorities, including Poles, satisfied.

Joanna Rohozinska, 16 September 1999


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