Features A polish heart in Lithuania

Poles in Lithuania are a minority who want to strengthen their identity. They are now demanding to have their names spelled correctly in official records.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 8-9, Vol II:III-IV, 2009
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 19, 2010

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The Poles of Lithuania are like the Russians of Latvia and Estonia. They are tolerated but not loved. And as always in Central Europe, a minority problem has its roots in history. The historical conflict is mostly about Wilno, as the Poles term the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
When Lithuania first became independent, between the two world wars, Poland incorporated Vilnius. Lithuanians have not forgotten this, nor how they were denied freedom in their own historical city. This, more than fear of cultural competition, probably underlies the law forbidding Lithuanian Poles to use the original Polish spelling of their names in passports and other official documents, or to put up Polish-language street signs.

In the latest census, in 2001, only about 235,000 people or 6.7 percent of the population identified themselves as ethnic Poles. With a majority of 83.5 percent, ethnic Lithuanians are culturally and politically secure, which explains why the minorities (Russians make up 6.3 percent) were granted citizenship and the right to vote when Lithuania gained independence in 1991.

And yet there are problems.

In September 2009,   Lithuania’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower-court ruling forbidding languages other than Lithuanian on street signs. The municipality of Salcininkai was told to remove non-Lithuanian (Polish and Russian) street-names. Fines can be imposed on any municipality that does not respect the court’s ruling.

Most Poles live in the south-eastern Soleczniki/Salcininkai region, not far from Wilno/Vilnius. The area borders on Belarus and was once part of a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. When Marshal Jozef Pilsudski declared Poland’s independence in 1918 and annexed Wilno in 1922, it was part of his dream to revive the original medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which the Grand Dukes had ruled from the Castle in Vilnius.
The fact that Pilsudski chose Wilno as the final resting place for his heart shows the symbolic importance that his dream gave the city. Pilsudski’s heart is buried next to his mother’s grave in the Polish Military Cemetery. She had given birth to him in 1867, just outside Vilnius.

The Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milozs (1911–2004), who grew up in Wilno/Vilnius, is the most famous Polish writer to spring from the cultural-historical landscape created by Lithuania’s Polish-speakers. Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) also studied and worked in Wilno/Vilnius, when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. Mickiewicz and Milozs were very far from being insular Polish nationalists. In their view, borders should not divide people along ethnic lines. Rather, they saw borderlands as areas of multicultural diversity, the kind of diversity that had existed in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

This may be one reason why, on August 23, 1987, Lithuanian dissidents chose to stage a groundbreaking, retrospective protest against the Molotov Ribbentrop-Pact at the Mickiewicz statue close to the bank of the river Vilnia. The event is seen as marking the birth of the Lithuanian independence movement.

But many Lithuanians have unhappy historical memories of a Commonwealth in which the Poles constituted the upper class and the Lithuanians made up the peasantry, speaking a dialect which was not welcome in Polish-dominated Catholic churches. These memories came alive during the independence movement, and the most radical Lithuanian nationalists exploited anti-Polish sentiments. Thus, the Polish minority fought for autonomy in a new country where Lithuanian was becoming the sole national language.

As is often the case, the struggle against the suppressor brought the two rival groups together, in a common defense of freedom against the greater evil. But political discord followed, particularly when local Polish mayors declared a particular region autonomous. Their Polish nationalism clashed with an equally strong Lithuanian nationalism, as enforced by Vytatuas Landsbergis’s leadership.

By the early 1990s, this had created strained relations between Lithuania and Poland. After Landsbergis left office the tension eased significantly. But one very concrete sign of a persistent, underlying conflict is that Lithuania and Poland have, for many years now, failed to connect the two countries’ electricity power grids. This causes problems for Lithuania, as the Ignalina nuclear power station was closed towards the end of 2009.

In day-to-day life, there is little Polish-Lithuanian friction to be seen — or heard, for that matter. Many inhabitants of the multicultural Vilnius master the languages of the three large ethnic groups: Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

But the Lithuanian Poles’ Union has recently staged protests, requesting EU assistance to obtain the right to use the original spelling of Polish names in official documents, to use Polish in public life and to have street signs in Polish in areas where Poles are in the majority. According to Lithuania’s new president, Dalia Grybauskaite, the country does not currently violate ethnic minorities’ rights; nevertheless, she has hinted at possible improvements.

When former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, now Speaker of the EU Parliament, visited Vilnius in October, Grybauskaite said that Lithuania might consider giving Poles the right to write their names in Polish on official documents. Buzek welcomed the pledge and asked Polish protesters congregated outside the presidential palace to show patience. When one demonstrator claimed that Poles have not experienced freedom in Lithuania for two decades, Buzek told him not to exaggerate and pointed to how much things had changed in the last 25 years.

Subsequently, Lithuania’s Minister of Justice said that the Constitutional Court’s ruling on spelling of names in fact leaves room for Lithuania to accept as legitimate names spelled according to the person’s own language.

One example of things that have changed was the democratic presidential election of 2009, when a Lithuanian citizen of Polish descent stood as a candidate. The candidate’s name was Waldemar Tomaszewski — or Valdemar Tomaševski, as the name was spelled on the ballot slip. Tomaszewski, who leads the minority party, received 4.7 percent of the votes cast. In the parliamentary elections of 2008, his party won 4.8 percent of votes and three of out of 141 seats. ≈

  • Santa

    Arne Bengtsson has been talking to too many Poles and listening to their ill-founded complaints. The Poles will never be happy until they illegally occupy Vilnius again, just like 1920-1939, when they shut down Lithuanian schools and banned the Lithuanian language. They should be grateful that the Lithuanians are really quite tolerant, compared to the Poles' own record.