On fences and neighbors: The problem of Polish minority in Lithuania

Irina M. Busygina,
Doctor of Sciences, Professor,
Higher School of Economics – National Research University (Campus in Saint Petersburg),

Anton D. Onishchenko,
Higher School of Economics – National Research University,

To date, European countries have worked out a number of mechanisms intended to manage the problem of ethnic minorities living on their territories. However, EU members are carrying out different approaches towards representation of minorities in a variety of areas. Most ethnic groups have close ties with their countries of origin, which may also cause considerable tension between two states and potentially even result in a bilateral conflict. In addition, the settlement of the problems of ethnic minorities is particularly difficult in those states where the process of nation-building is not yet completed. These states include the Republic of Lithuania. In spite of policy on ethnic minorities being not as an urgent problem in Lithuania as it is in the two other Baltic States, ethnic conflicts constantly continue to appear. Having successfully avoided problems with the Russian minority in 1990s, Lithuania up to this day failed to handle its relations with the Polish one. Instead, it attenuated these relations.

The Constitutions of all the states that have acceded to the EU in 2004 protect the rights of ethnic minorities, however, their practical approaches and their outcomes differ significantly in each CEE country. Despite the relatively low level of ethnic discrimination in Lithuania, the Polish minority living there constantly complains about discrimination from the authorities: this includes insufficient financing of the minority educational and cultural institutions, the Lithuanisation of Polish names and renaming streets in Polish communities. Moreover, the Lithuanian government has elaborated laws which make it more difficult for the Polish minority to get education in native language.

The roots of such a policy can be traced in complicated historical relations between Lithuania and Poland. The problems in bilateral relations date back to the XVI century, and emerged after the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was the turning point in two countries’ relations leading to deterioration of their ties: established confederation led to discrimination of Lithuanians as Polish nobility has gained superior position in the then newly state. Later conflicts over Polish refugees and the city of Vilnius in the XX century have contributed to the complication of bilateral relations.

The burden of the past still remains to “poison” Polish-Lithuanian relations although both countries have become the members of the EU and NATO which suggests a high level of mutual political loyalty. Indeed, we observe quite effective cooperation between Lithuania and Poland in economic and political spheres, though with regard to official attitude to Polish minority in Lithuania the situation is very different. Giving first priority to the task of titular nation’s cohesion, the Lithuanian state denies any accusation made by Poland and in its turn blames the Polish authorities for trying to discredit the Baltic state (for instance, in 2014 Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaite accused the Polish president of lacking political culture following his denunciation of discriminatory policy towards the Polish minority in Lithuania). The Lithuanian official approach has led to the situation when the government has distanced from the cooperation with NGOs (a huge number of which represent various Polish groups in Lithuania) and with the Polish diaspora. Furthermore, the Lithuanian state and Polish agents of civil society (who serve a primary link between the minority and the ‘country of origin’) practically do not cooperate.

The lessons are to be learned. The ethnic minority problem in Lithuania has revealed an important feature of the emergence and evolution of the country’s political system. The country, while promoting the institutional aspect of democracy through establishing democratic institutions (first of all competitive, free and fair elections and multiparty system), yet holds back development of the liberal aspect of democracy by repeatedly trying to suppress manifestations of ethnic diversity.

The EU membership has failed to automatically solve the problem of the Polish minority in Lithuania, the Union is objectively unable to solve the problems of such kind. However – and these are good news – the membership mitigates the problem by making relations more transparent and creating new channels for minorities to express themselves at the supranational level. For the solution of ethnic minorities problems domestic political factors are still more important than belonging to the EU (and commitment to its rules), but the EU influence is significant as it constraints the behavior of the member-states restraining them from launching a conflict. It creates an environment in which controversial issues may be settled.

Email: ira.busygina@gmail.com

Email: onishchenko.ad@gmail.com

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