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Poland and Lithuania: Patience is important in developing good neighbourly relations

November 27, 2012 - Maciej Makulski - Bez kategorii

An interview with Egidijus Meilūnas, Lithuania’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

Maciej Makulski: What would you say today’s Polish-Lithuanian relations are like? Cold? Tense? Far from normal?

Egidijus Meilūnas: Actually, I wouldn't use any of the above words. Polish-Lithuanian relations are today pragmatic and focused on maintaining partnership. To prove this point, let me tell you that the relations between states in general, as well as between Poland and Lithuania, are always very complex, consisting of various elements and hence need to be viewed from a much broader perspective.

In the majority of areas, the cooperation between these two countries is very good, one could even say exemplary. Consider our trade relations, which both Polish and Lithuanian politicians and diplomats agree on. However, there is one issue on which we do differ on in our views: the case of implementing the rights of national minorities. As you know, there is a small Lithuanian minority in Poland, and there is a relatively large Polish minority in Lithuania.

However, I also think that the difference is not really at the factual level in this area, but rather rooted in bias, stereotypes, and sometimes historical myths. Having said that, I do believe that even these differences can be overcome, as the history of our relations shows that the path of mutual dialogue leads us to solving problems and reaching mutual goals.

And yet something is torturing these relations at the highest level. In his speech at the beginning of the year, the Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, said that the Polish government was waiting for a change of government in Lithuania. On the other hand, Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, suggested stopping the “superficial” meetings, and suggested continuing cooperation at the working group level. Do you also believe that this is the right direction?

When it comes to this breaking of relations that you are referring to, then again we have an example of how far can these press-generated interpretations go, and how much they differ from the reality. This has already been explained: when it comes to our everyday cooperation, we have, as I have already said, very good results.

Lithuanian journalist, Virginijus Savukynas, has recently said that the Polish-Lithuanian conflict is a defence war in which both sides are protecting their identity. He pointed out that solving this problem would be very difficult, as introducing the Polish spelling regime of last names could be regarded as a national betrayal in Lithuania. What is your assessment of this?

It’s difficult for me to assess the words of others. As a diplomat I am prone to avoid assessments and rely on facts. The quoted journalist presented his personal assessment and theory of this supposedly defence war, but other experts have other theories. The truth, however, is that as for the second decade of the 21th century we have known each other too little. This may sound like a paradox living in the era of the internet and global flow of information.

The paradox of this situation is that it is sometimes more difficult to learn the truth based on the facts and which, in my opinion, could be one of the main reasons for these problems with communication. If we look at the Polish-Lithuanian historical calendar we see that there was around 400 years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, partitions and splitting of our nations, and then a short, but important period of independence and self-determination of both states – the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Lithuania, and then – again – the German occupation.

In the 20th century, however, we have cooperated as independent states for a mere 10 years: for one year during the interwar period, and nine years in the last decade of the 20th century. Looking at our common, centuries-long and complicated history, I don't fully understand those who say that different problems can be solved straightaway. I believe that time is a very important factor. It was Jan Nowak-Jeziorański who reminded us how important patience in developing good neighbourly relations between neighbours is.

You mentioned trade relations as an example of an area in which the cooperation between Poland and Lithuania is doing well. Do issues such as minorities and the spelling of the names overshadow other, important things which both sides should be proud of?

Indeed, the press very rarely covers areas in which we have extremely good cooperation. Let me say it one more time – we have very good cooperation in the majority of areas: cultural exchange, youth exchange, and tourism, etc, etc. I always ask the same question. How can relations between Poland and Lithuania be evaluated as poor when trade exchange is going up by 20 to 30 per cent each year.

Polish investments in Lithuania and Lithuanian investments in Poland are increasing by the year. More and more Poles are coming to Lithuania as tourists and more and more Lithuanians visit Poland. Examples like this can only be multiplied.

The second thing is that unfortunately the press often writes about these delicate matters without being precise. Let me give you an example. Last year our parliament passed the amendment to the law on education. The interpretation that emerged right away in Poland was that the Lithuanians wanted to eliminate Polish schools in Lithuania.

When asked by a Polish journalist if the Polish language would disappear from Lithuanian schools, I said it wouldn’t as 80 per cent of subjects will still be taught in Polish – this is the highest percentage with respect to Polish schools abroad. But the journalist insisted that it would disappear. My question is: how can we have a true dialogue when we don’t speak the language of the facts?

When it comes to the spelling of last names, I know that the absolute majority of opponents who claim that the Lithuanians “lithuanise” Polish last names in Lithuania are convinced that Lithuanians actually add Lithuanian endings to Polish last names. This is absolutely not true. Soon after Lithuania’s independence, the Lithuanian Parliament passed a law allowing the representatives of ethnic minorities to reject these endings, and all last names are now written in the same way as they are in the person’s native language.

For example, a Pole with the last name Kozłowski who’s got a Lithuanian passport will have it written Kozlovski. The only difference is that the Lithuanian alphabet does not have letters like “w” and “ł”. Hence we write “v” and “l”. There is also one more difference in the language tradition. In Poland and other countries, attention is paid to the way the last name is written and not how it is pronounced.

In Lithuania this is different. For us the most important thing is that it is written according to the Lithuanian tradition, but in such a way that it would be pronounced like in the native language. This also refers to the Polish last names, but also to Russian, English or German names.

You have a rich experience in diplomacy, including the position of the Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to Poland. Since 2010 you have been Lithuania’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs? Which of these jobs has given you the most satisfaction?

Thank you for this question, but unfortunately I can't answer which one was better and which one was worse? For a person who loves his profession, in my case diplomacy, the specific job doesn't matter that much. What matters is the things that we can do and the positive results of this work.

That’s why I can probably say that I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work in many different areas, including Polish-Lithuanian relations, and observe the good results of this work.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Maciej Makulski works for the College of Eastern Europe in Wroclaw.

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