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23 July, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Oleksandr Pahiria

Troubled Neighbourhood

Wojciech Borodzicz-Smoliński talks about modern Warsaw-Vilnius relations

Poland-Lithuania relations are the tensest in the EU. The countries often conflict over historical, national, cultural and language issues. This instability is caused by the district of Vilnius, which has one of the biggest Polish minorities (around 240,000 people) abroad. Moscow, which is trying to strengthen its influence in the region, profits from these conflicts that spoil any dialogue between the two neighbours. Lithuania has the October parliamentary race ahead and the party of local Poles is going to take part in the elections together with Russian forces. Wojciech Borodzicz-Smoliński, a director of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the conflicts of the two states and their possible consequences.

U. W.: Relations between Lithuanians and Poles are the worst in the EU and are often compared to the cat and dog enmity. What is the reason for this? Don’t you think Warsaw and Vilnius are hostages of their common history?

This is all about politicians and media interpreting public views. Speaking about Polish-Lithuanian mutual comprehension; I would like to mention the following definition which has been used in our politics for the last several years: “a tough friendship”. And here, it is worth considering economic and political levels separately. I can say that it is getting better in economics: Poland is now one of four main partners of Lithuania and the Polish Orlen Lietuva Investment Company continues to fill the Lithuanian budget with more and more taxes. We have joint energy projects that should strengthen the economic security of not just our closest neighbour, but also of Latvia and Estonia. The Lotos company plans to use its affiliates in Lithuania to search for and develop shale gas deposits within the territory of the country. Meanwhile PZU, the biggest Polish insurance company, intends to expand its affiliates from Lithuania to other Baltic markets. Of course, there are some problems in economic cooperation, but it is quite normal to have problems and we can solve them together.

It is much more complicated to analyze relations on social and political levels. Firstly, because of the issue of the national minorities, secondly, because of the unwillingness of the public and politicians to consider any other issues apart from education, language, street names, surnames and land restitution. The discussions of these issues are complicated by their politicization abroad and by the lack of dialogue between the societies of the two countries. The issues of the Polish national minorities in Warsaw politics provide Poles with good reasons for debate. Poles like to talk about Poland’s responsibility to support minorities and the necessary intensity of this support, as well as debate about political force being the best guardian of Poles abroad. I don’t think Poland and Lithuania are hostages of their history. Let me remind you that the period from the 15th century to the beginning of the 20th century was marked with almost no wars between the two countries. It is modern times that have brought these conflicts with the consequences still fresh in our memory. Speaking of bad treatment towards their compatriots in Lithuania, Poles should better recall Warsaw’s national politics in the Vilnius Region at the beginning of the 20th century and only afterwards make any proposals.

U. W.: What are the most sensitive issues in these relations?

These issues are usually deemed to be the spelling of surnames, as Lithuania has forbidden the use of the Polish letters (ś, ć, ń, ą, ę, w etc.); the return of land; reforms in education for national minorities and street names, though I don’t consider these problems to be the most important ones in the two nations’ relations. All these problems can be solved if the two parties, mainly Lithuania’s Poles and Lithuanians, are willing to do so. But the lack of trust in relations is the decisive factor. The parties treat each other on the basis of prejudices and stereotypes. The main reason for this is that Lithuanian citizens of Polish origin are considered to be disloyal to the state they live in, always ready to betray the state and always waiting for neighbours’ help. Lithuanians are very sensitive to this aspect and Poland should understand this delicate issue. It is slightly reminiscent of the Poles’ distrust towards the Germans.

U. W.:  Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL) has formed the Valdemar Tomaševski’s Block together with the Lithuanian Russian Union on the basis of protection of national minorities against the state’s coalition in power. Do you think AWPL is taking care of its own interests and can it become an additional instrument of Moscow during the parliamentary race in Lithuania in October 2012?

The question is not only about the coalition of AWPL with this force. It seems like representatives of national minorities have the will to, and can, cooperate. But one should consider this problem within the framework of Polish-Lithuanian and Lithuanian-Russian relations. Lack of trust between the partners, and that is the case in both relations, makes it difficult to overcome distrust and suspicion as to voting lists. Meanwhile AWPL is occupied in the race solely with the issues of the Polish minority and isn’t really trying to increase its influence on the rest of the voters. That brings more suspicion. It is worth paying special attention to the partners chosen for election unions in the country where gas and oil reserves wholly depend on Moscow’s politics and the internet and media are overburdened with Russian language.

U. W.: Russia is the only country in the region directly profiting from your confrontation. Why do conflicts on historical, educational and language issues undermine rapport between Lithuania and Poland based on the platform of long-term foreign policy objectives? What could this platform be like to counteract Moscow’s attempts to increase its geopolitical impact in Central Eastern Europe?

Politicians of both countries use old schemes. In Lithuania, Poles are surely considered to be enemies of the local statehood. And Poles in their turn treat Lithuanians as obstinate opponents of the revival of Polish national life in the neighbouring country. The atmosphere of suspicion and politicization is pressurized by the media. Our people treat each other as opponents and don’t want to listen to anything out of the stereotypes framework. De-facto we do not communicate with each other and have not created a platform for dialogue formed, for instance, within the last 20 years in Poland with Germany. The thing is that the Polish-Lithuanian conflict could be presented to the world as a dispute between a disobedient and uncertain party and another one dreaming of “A Great Poland from Sea to Sea”.

First of all discussion is needed. Important issues of Lithuania and Poland should be taken into account, for example, their EU and NATO futures and the role of our countries in the Baltic region. It is necessary to find common objectives beyond politics.

U. W.: What levels can the two countries cooperate on?

They already cooperate in many areas. Economic cooperation has become the best example of cooperation beyond politics, and has given considerable results. Much time and hard work are needed to overcome the deficiency of openness and trust in Polish-Lithuanian relations. Bridges can be built via programs, funds, projects, student exchange programs etc. But there can be no easy way out.

U. W.: Do you think the aggressive policy of Warsaw led by Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorskican undermine previous achievements in this area?

Apparently the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Minister Sikorski are the only advocates of the tough line. Other participants of the public dialogue support peace talks and the gradual building of trust. Our country often forgets that it bears great responsibility as a powerful EU state, which is important for the region. We can’t rely on the position of a superior state. Poland is not and won’t be an empire, but it can be a regional leader. That means we have to be guiders instead of using power and forcing our partners to do something we want.


Wojciech Borodzicz-Smoliński is a deputy director of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. He is a graduate of the National Defense University and the European Centre of Warsaw University. During the period of 2004-2009 he coordinated the Office of Janusza Onyszkiewicz, a Member of the European Parliament. He is a participant in numerous international projects. In 2004 he opened the Belarusian School of Journalism. In 2010 he led the Poland-Belarus Regional Partnership Forum. He is a specialist in foreign affairs and Polish Eastern policy.

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