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Where two are fighting

Lithuania and Poland have always had a special relationship with several ups and downs since the fall of communism. These days interests are slowly aligning and a format for future cooperation is being established.

August 20, 2018 - Zbigniew Rokita - Articles and Commentary

Prime Minister Beata Szydło with the Prime Miniser of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis in Tallinn 5.8.2017 Photo: P. Tracz / KPRM (cc)

When PiS (Law and Justice) came to power in Poland, many in Vilnius had high hopes in relation to Jarosław Kaczyński’s rule. It was expected that he would continue Lech Kaczyński’s policy, who during his time in office had a great relationship with the then President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus (2005-2009). The politicians of PO (Civic Platform) were not missed in Vilnius, as they were associated with a hard line, ultimatums and an aggressive language.

In 2015, it quickly turned out that PiS more or less continued the previous line of PO. There might not even have been a decision on the matter. The policy towards Lithuania could be characterised as neglect. Warsaw still made bilateral relations conditional on how their own demands concerning the Polish minority in Lithuania were handled. It also stood firm behind the Polish Electoral Action in Lithuania (a party that has both Polish and Russian minority representatives, elected into the Lithuanian Sejmas and European Parliament. It rules a few select regions of the country, until recently a minority coalition partner in the national government; it receives some 10 mandates in the 141 member chamber), a rackety group that is known to sympathise with the Kremlin. Thanks to this support, Poland has been drawn into internal Lithuanian politics. The reason for this model of approaching Lithuania being preferred (amongst others) might be the fact that this neighbor has been placed lower on Warsaw’s priority list. The days of a thousand yearlong partnership are over. When we were a proponent of Lithuanian integration with the West, as it was in our common interest. Back then Vilnius was just as stubborn when it came to a number of issues.

Matters became heated in the Summer of 2017, with the so called passport affair. The Polish Ministry of the Interior announced that the new Polish passports would depict the Lviv Eaglets cemetery and the Gate of Dawn from Vilnius (depending on an internet vote). The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign affairs was angered and declared that structures located on their territory should not be depicted in the official documents of another country. The Polish internet supported the Gate of Dawn in numbers, but thankfully – the Polish Ministry of the Interior decided to withdraw from the idea. Jerzy Haszczyński compared the Polish lack of sensitivity towards the matter in the daily Rzeczypospolita, to the Germans putting the town hall of Poznań or the Centennial Hall in Wrocław in their documents. In short, the relationship during two first years of PiS was very bad. Lithuanian columnist described it as being the worst since the beginning of the Second World War.

Breakthrough?

That same Summer something was beginning to change. In June 2017 a longstanding dispute between Orlen (a Polish oil refiner and petrol retailer) and the Lithuanian state railways was resolved. The matter had weighed heavy on the bilateral ties since 2008. There was finally an understanding on the disputed tariffs for transporting Polish goods with Lithuanian trains. The result was favourable to Warsaw not only because of some vested interest in the relationship, but also in thanks to the political situation in Lithuania and the situation on the international oil market. It was still a crucial step in ending the “cold peace”. The presence of both the Prime Minister of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis and the Minister of Transport Rokas Masiulis attest to the importance of the signed agreement.

The Vilnius based columnist Aleksander Radchenko noted at the time in the popular rojsty.blox.pl, that the Lithuanians had already given way for some of the demands of the Polish minority from 2014: “Most importantly, Lithuania has resolved some of the more problematic issues in our relations. The last government of Algirdas Butkevičius did in fact raise awareness of the needs of the minorities. The National Minorities Department of the Lithuanian Republic was reestablished. The issue of the double language street signs was mostly resolved. It is now also allowed to use your minority language when going to any state administration offices. The government of Saulius Skvernelis went even further, resolving the dispute between Orlen Lietuva and the Lithuanian state railways. The conflict over Vilnius’s Polish schools accreditation as a recognised institution was also laid to rest (…)”

In August of 2017, the Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, Marek Kuchciński visited Lithuania. It was the first visit in a long time from a Polish dignitary to our north-eastern neighbor. All of a sudden Polish leaders started visiting the country. In the Spring the President Andrzej Duda came, followed by the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the Marshal of the Senate Stanisław Karczewski, before Marshal Kuchciński came again. The visits were reciprocated in Warsaw. There were talks.

PiS, who has behaved as a bull in a china shop on many foreign policy fronts, seems to pursue a different approach in relations with Lithuania. Less use of unproductive hard power (educating the Lithuanians). Solving more issues with soft power and direct talks behind the scenes.

Warming relations with Lithuania is important to the Polish government for a number of reasons. It seems as the main reason is to gain another ally during a time where Poland has a number of strained relationships with several countries. It yields effects as the comments made by Lithuanian policy makers point to Warsaw having Vilnius’s support in their conflict with the European Commission.

Reconciliatory moves by the Lithuanians in regards to the Polish minority, a change of power in Vilnius, the isolation of Warsaw, an understanding of common interests – all of this began to pay off and contributed to a reset in relations.

A Difficult Relationship

It is important to note that our relationship is not solely based on minority rights or history. These dimensions overshadow the rest of the relationship in the social perception. Meanwhile, another component of the relations are a number of infrastructural projects of strategic importance – especially to Lithuania. An improvement of the political climate might lead to their implementation.

Among the most important projects is Rail Baltica – a railway line planned primarily for quick cargo transport between Warsaw-Kaunas-Riga-Tallinn. It is supposed to be an element of a larger European network, where goods could be easily transported from let’s say Helsinki to the Benelux. It should be finalised within a few years. “Rail Baltica combined with a few other projects dealing with high speed rail in Poland and the Czech Republic could become a propel a great change in the transport geography of Central and Eastern Europe. Poland could be one of the main beneficiaries from this investment, as it would become a central point for both passenger and cargo rail in this new transport system” – commented Kamil Moskwik from the Jagellonian Institute for biznesalert.pl

Another project is Via Baltica, a dual carriage way between Warsaw and Tallinn. In an interview with the Polish Radio, the Lithuanian Prime Minister claimed: “We are determined to finish a four lane highway between Vilnius and Warsaw until 2023”. Currently there is no railway connection between the two capitals, with the current road not being very impressive either. These kind of infrastructural projects are good for both Lithuania and Poland. For the Lithuanians they mean better integration with the rest of Europe, while for Poland it is a development impulse for its poorer north-eastern regions.

The synchronisation of their electricity network is a priority for the Lithuanians, as the Baltic states are still in a Russian energetic system. Lithuania aims to connect up with Western European electricity networks through Poland, although other options are also being taken into consideration like Sweden. This above mentioned synchronisation has gained pace and should be finalised by 2025, in thanks to another conflict being resolved.

Piotr Maciążek, an expert in the field of energy and fuels told forumdialogu.eu: “As long as the Baltic states are part of the Russian electrical network, the Russians could limit their energy supply. Lithuania produces some 20 per cent of its needs, which is why imports from Russia and Belarus are so instrumental to their energy balance”.

In the conversation with Maciążek, one of the scenarios mentioned is even a total blackout in Lithuania: “After the synchronisation is done it will be very easy and cheap to continue construction of connections to Europe, if the Polish government would agree to it that is. Today, when Poland and Lithuania are in different systems, the construction of connections is very pricey”

Another important project is a gas pipe connecting Poland in Lithuania scheduled for 2022. It will raise Lithuania’s security integrating it with Central-European markets. It will loosen the reliance on imports from Russia to some extent and make the LNG terminal in Klaipeda more profitable. This project will also be beneficiary to Poland.

There is another factor to this relationship that cannot be omitted. Both Lithuanians and Poles have a similar understanding of the Russian threat, together forming an important “Putin-sceptic” group within the EU and NATO.

Time will tell if this current reset in relations will yield any fruits. It remains to hope that these two countries whose fate is intertwined, will not let irrational arguments arise between them. After all, where two are fighting the third wins. Who the third party is in this context does not require any explanation.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Zbigniew Rokita is an editor with the Polish bimonthly magazine Nowa Europa Wschodnia and author of the upcoming book Królowie Strzelców. Piłka w cieniu imperium (Kings of the pitch. Football in the shadow of an empire).

This article was first published by Forum Dialogu on the 13.8.2018

The same article in German 

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