As the situation with the treatment of Polish minority in Lithuania remains complicated we discussed it's causes and origin with Professor Cezary Żołędowski of Social Policy Institute of University of Warsaw:
- How do you qualify the current state of Polish-Lithuanian relations?
These relations are very bad now. I think, they are worst from anytime in the middle of the 90's. They every equally bad only in the beginning of the 90's before signing the Polish-Lithuanian Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. Of course the main reason of this is discriminating Polish minority by Lithuanian authority.
And it's not opposite - Lithuanian authority doesn't discriminate Polish minority because the relations are bad but the relations are bad cause Lithuania discriminates Poles.
- If it hasn't always been like this, then what changed?
Some Polish politicians at last noticed the situation now because former Polish policy was such, that the problem of Polish national minority in Lithuania will be solved when Lithuanians at least will stop being afraid of it. But this policy didn't bring anything good. And the Polish Prime Minister at the beginning of last year said he will not visit Lithuania unless it's authority doesn't improve treatment of national minority.
- You use the word discrimination to describe that treatment?
The Polish are strongly discriminated.
In my opinion, Polish are the most discriminated autochthonic national minority in all European Union.
It should be emphasized that Polish in Lithuania are autochthonic minority - they lived there for centuries unlike Lithuanians in Vilnius region. Lithuanians are mostly late migrants in Vilnius after 1939 or 1945. It's a complicated problem. Some Lithuanians lived on this territory before it belonged to Poland but great majority of the population in Vilnius region were Poles! Second large national group were Jews. In the town of Vilnius itself Polish were the most numerous population. Second were also Jews, third - Russians and Belorussians. And the Lithuanians were considered only about 2% of Vilnius' population in 1939. It changed after World War II and transition to Soviet Union as Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Lithuanians from Northen and Western parts of the county moved to Vilnius region in large numbers.
- Speaking about the current situation, why, in your opinion, does Lithuania discriminate Poles now? What're the reasons behind it?
Reasons are mostly historical. Of course Poland and Lithuania share the same history - it's an objective fact. But in social consciousness Lithuanians and Polish have different thinking. First of all, we think about other periods of our history. And, secondly, we value this history quite differently. Polish, for instance, maybe think about Jagiellonian dynasty, about Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
But you have to know, that in this period the name "Lithuania" was a rather political description of much larger territory including both contemporary Lithuania and Belarus. And mainly Lithuanians in that period were not modern Lithuanians but Belorussians.
Obviously in our Polish history we value that period very highly while Lithuanians treat it differently. For them it was not so nice cause in their historiography Lithuania was almost incorporated into Poland. Lithuanian elites were totally polonized. In Lithuanian thinking about this common history Lithuania was a victim of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And of course Lithuanians much more think about the late history. Often it's called Polish-Lithuanian War of 1920 for Vilnius region. I wouldn't call it war. Officially it was only kind of aggression of some not very big Polish troops, which were created by police soldiers of Vilnius region, and they were against official Polish authority, Marshal Piłsudski. They moved to put out the Lithuanians who were occupants of this region.
Lithuanian memory of our common history is extremely anti-Polish.
Polish are enemies, even more dangerous enemies than Russians.
Since the XIX century Russians have been enemies in strictly political sense, but Polish were enemies in a much larger - cultural - sense. I mean, that Polish economic and cultural domination on the territory of modern Lithuania was very deep.
And there's another thing in our memory.
History of our relations isn't equally strong in both societies. For Lithuanians history - including the conscience of the Vilnius region after WWII - is very-very important. For Poles this isn't so important.
I think, you know very well, that in historical sense Poles deal basically with Russia and Germany, yes? And also with Ukraine. But our conflicts with other nations such as Lithuanians or Czechs are in local groups. That is in groups living at the border, the groups interested in Lithuania due family issues. It's not important for majority of Poles. The opposite happens in relations with Russia and Germany because - I'm sorry to say so - in Polish thinking they're big and dangerous enemies. Likewise for Lithuanians the conflicts with Poland take the first place.
- So it means that the discrimination of Poles by the Lithuanian government isn't about practical matters as it's rather based on certain historical grudges Lithuania bares?
Polish minority in Lithuania was discriminated in interwar period as well. After transition to Soviet Lithuania this discrimination was not so cruel because Lithuania was under Soviet domination. While after the creation of the Second Republic discrimination again became a fact. It's mainly because of one basic political reason -
Lithuanians are afraid of Polish claims to their territory. It makes Poles living in Lithuania internal enemies.
- By the way, concerning claims, what do you think about the recent Lithuanian Language Commission's decision to include the fifth ethnographic region in toponymical list - the so-called Lithuania Minor or Prussian Lithuania? Can this be viewed as a step towards irredentism?
Well, I'm sure it's not the case. I mean, irredentism of whom? Nowadays Lithuanians don't live in Lithuania Minor. It's not far from covering mainly Kaliningrad Oblast, so it's occupied by Russians. For me it's rather a sign of Lithuanian deep internalization of history. Lithuanians are preoccupied with their own school of history. So you shouldn't be afraid.
Lithuanian nationalism is very loud and sometimes aggressive, yet I want to emphasize that it's unrealistic.
It's only remaining of former Lithuanian powerful state, former powerful nation. That's the typical way they look at history.
- Why does Lithuania battle bilingual street signs with Polish names?
It's part of a larger problem. Perhaps you know, that actually in official standing of Lithuanian authority and also in thinking of common Lithuanians there are no Poles in Lithuania.
Yes, no Poles in Lithuania! Who speak Polish and feel themselves as Poles in Lithuania? According with the official positions of Lithuanian authority they are not Poles but polonized Lithuanians and polonized Belorussians. And so if you translate this into political activity, they need to be reborn to Lithuanian nation. The aim of this discrimination is to turn Poles into Lithuanians. Maybe it's not completely false in historical sense - some people are really polonized Lithuanians, but many aren't - they're Polish by origin as well. And it's not important anyway, cause you belong to the nation you want to belong. To conclude, the roots of discrimination are, firstly, in historical fear of Poland and, secondly, in thinking of Lithuanian Poles as not Poles by origin.
- How real are their threats?
From a point of view of Lithuanian Poles and Polish politicians they're very dangerous. Lithuanian authority tried a lot to assimilate Polish minority.
- Does the all said above mean that Lithuania isn't democratic?
I wouldn't call Lithuania an undemocratic state. Lithuanian formal signs show liberal democracy.
Although I assert that Lithuanian policy towards national minorities, especially the Polish minority, is not democratic.
- How do you evaluate the situation with minorities' rights in EU in general?
The European Union has the highest standards of national minorities protection in the world. I'm surprised that EU institutions do not react to the problem of Lithuanian attitude towards Polish national minority.
- Why aren't they doing that?
I think, till now EU institutions treated this as internal problem of Lithuania. Nevertheless we had some recalls of criticism of Lithuanian policy, but it was moderate criticism. The reason behind this is that Polish authority didn't try to involve EU to solve this problem. Polish government should do just that. I expect that EU institutions will react.
- How can the EU react to influence Lithuanian policy?
First of all by condemning it and reminding Lithuanian authority that high standards of protection of national minorities in EU are compulsory. And if the efforts Polish government will appear not efficient enough it should use other tools in bilateral relations with Lithuania to make it respect national minority.
- Which tools, for example?
I'm not an adviser of Polish government. But taking in account that Poland is a very important country for Lithuania, these tools can be linked with Lithuanian transit through the territory of Poland and something like that.
- So far Polish MP's went to Lithuania to help Boleslav Daškevič, administrative director of Šalčininkai District, to pay a large fine for bilingual street signs - what do you think about that?
It's a nice action. It shows that Polish society feels attachment to Lithuanian Poles and tries to help them, although, in my opinion, it's not enough. Support of Lithuanian Poles should be organized by the Polish state, not by single politicians or non-governmental organization.
I expect that at last our government will start more stronger support and on a much larger scale.
- Please remind us, how many Poles live in Lithuania?
It's difficult to say. According to the official Lithuanian census, it's about 220.000-230.000. But I believe there's a bit more of them, because some hide their nationality in political and administrative situations. So maybe even about 300.000 people in Lithuania may show Polish national identity. If we estimate only 220.000 none the less the problem is very serious, because it's a big part of Lithuanian society. You can compare it to numbers of Lithuanians in Poland. Official Polish censuses from 2002 and 2011 state that we have only 5.000 Lithuanians. That's very small. That's not even 1 per mile. And Poland respects all rights of Lithuanian national minority. They don't have any problems with education, bilingualism in offices or territories, in political space or ownership of the land. They have all rights that Poles are refused in Lithuania.
- So in a mirrored case if someone installs street signs in Lithuanian language in Poland, will he be persecuted?
It's impossible. Lithuanian state is based on national ideology. Polish state is based on citizenry ideology. In Poland we treat the rights based on citizenship. If Lithuanians living in Poland are Polish citizens and pay taxes in Poland they have the rights to protect their national identity.