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Polish Diaspora: trade-off between Vilnius and Warsaw

They in Poland are displeased that their compatriots in Lithuania are more pro-Russian than pro-Polish and in order to free them from the Kremlin’s propaganda, in Feb 2018, they began broadcasting Polish TV channels in that country. The Lithuanian authorities welcomed that initiative as they are also concerned about the growth of pro-Kremlin moods in their country.

“Shocking” results of polls

As you may know, Poland and Lithuania have quite a complicated common past. As a result, today, Poles are the biggest ethnic minority in Lithuania – 186,000 or 6.58% of all people living in that country. Most of them live in the southeast and in Vilnius. Over the last years, the Lithuanian Poles have been complaining about Lithuania’s attempts to assimilate them. And they have grounds for such complaints: the Lithuanian authorities are closing their schools, prohibit them from writing their names in Polish and from using Polish street nameplates in Polish communities.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite is said to be openly encouraging anti-Polish activists. Even former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and former Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis admit that the current Lithuanian regime is spoiling its relations with the Poles and is doing it on purpose even though Poland is Lithuania’s closest neighbor and partner. In their turn, the Polish authorities keep making harsh statements concerning Lithuania. “They are showing some great power attitude. They keep insisting on better conditions for the Polish community even though you will hardly find a better place for Poles than Lithuania. I think that this pressure may come from the wish just to deprive us of our national dignity and values. In Poland there are groups that are kindling anti-Lithuanian moods and spreading lies about ‘horrible’ Lithuanians,” former Foreign Minister of Lithuania Povilas Gylys said.

But not all Poles share his view. Well-known Polish columnist Andrzej Poczobut appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza with a scandalous article saying that the Lithuanian Poles are openly pro-Putin. And he is right: recently member of the conservative Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats party Laurynas Kasčiūnas referred to a poll conducted by the Central and East European Studies Center among ethnic minorities in Vilnius, Šalčininkai, Visaginas and Klaipeda municipalities. “The poll has surprised me: as many as 46% of the Lithuanian Poles said that the ‘annexation’ of Crimea was legal. This percentage is as high as in the Russian community,” Kasčiūnas said.

But this is not the most shocking part of the poll, according to Kasčiūnas: “When asked to express their attitude towards the Russian President, 73% of the Lithuanian Russians said that they either liked him or liked him very much. But among the Poles the “like him very much” answer was even more prevalent: 63% of all answers. So, obviously, the attitudes of our ethnic minorities are much closer to the Kremlin’s policy than to our own foreign policy. With such percentages, in some of our municipalities, Putin might as well run for Lithuanian presidency!”

The Lithuanian conservatives are sure that mass media have a big role in this situation. “Pro-Kremlin moods become stronger when one hears somebody praising the Soviet times or when he or she watches Russian TV channels,” they say.

Diversification of the community

“More and more Poles in Lithuania are coming under the influence of Russia. There are too many of them,” says Jerzy Haszczyński, journalist from Polish Rzeczpospolita. “It turns out that the Lithuanian Poles watch not just Russian films and concerts but also propaganda programs contradicting the interests of the Polish state.” Poczobut is of the same opinion. He advises the Polish authorities to think twice if they should continue supporting their unfaithful compatriots at the detriment of their relations with Lithuania – their NATO partner and ally against the “Russian threat.”

The activities of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance really worry the Polish press. According to Poczobut, the Lithuanian Seimas has adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s actions in the east of Ukraine and calling for toughing the anti-Russian sanctions and remembering “Putin’s crimes against the Ukrainian statehood.” The Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance was the only parliamentary force that voted against that document. The party’s leader Jaroslav Narkevic said that they had objective reasons for such a decision: “This resolution will harm Lithuania and will complicate its relations with Russia, who is one of its biggest economic partners. I think that this voting was inappropriate. Sanctions are bad for good neighbor relations.”

According to editor of Wilnoteka (mass media representing Lithuania’s Polish community) Edyta Maksymowicz, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance is just trying to earn support from the Lithuanian Russians. The latter have been the key allies of the Lithuanian Poles over the last years: the communities are at one as far as it concerns participation in local elections and protection of communal interests. According to Poczobut, the leader of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance Valdemar Tomaševski openly supported the self-defenders in Donbass and even said that he was ready to recognize Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. “So, Warsaw should think twice if it should continue supporting the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance and quarreling with Lithuania because of the Lithuanian Poles,” Poczobut says.

According to journalist of Nowa Europa Wschodnia Antoni Radczenko, in the past, the Polish authorities were mistaken when relying on the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance as the only representative of Polish interests in Lithuania. But now, they have seen that that party prefers flirting with the Kremlin to lobbying Poland’s interests and have changed their attitude. In order to prove his words, Radczenko quotes the head of the Polish President’s administration Krzysztof Szczerski as saying that the Polish authorities should try to diversify the Polish community. There are at least three groups of Poles in Lithuania, each having its own strategy, while our mass media quote just one of the groups. We should avoid stereotypes while analyzing the conditions of the Poles living in Lithuania.”

Who should give way to whom?

In his turn, member of the Polish President’s National Development Council, professor Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, who is also the advisor of former Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, believes that Lithuania make certain concessions here as its conflict with Poland would benefit Russia. “Russia plays up history wherever it can, especially if it is as painful as the history of Polish-Lithuanian relations. But it also likes interfering into bilateral ties – be they ties between Poland and Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The Russians use any chance to make things worse. Their game is not new and we must show people that it is still working. This is a very important task for our political elites. We must discuss these manipulations and try to build defenses against them,” Grajewski says, adding that Lithuania must first restore the usurped rights of the Polish community.

The Poles have found quite a smart way-out of this situation: they have made clear that they would be ready to improve their ties with the Lithuanians if they let them broadcast Polish TV channels in Lithuania’s Polish municipalities. This move is supposed to kill two birds with one stone: to enhance Polish cultural influence on the Lithuanian Poles and to free them from the “Russian propaganda.” In Feb 2018, they started broadcasting TVP Info, Kino Polska International and Kino Polska Muzyka International in Vilnius, Šalčininkai and Švenčionys. The Lithuanian authorities have allocated 350,000 EUR for this program.

Marijus Antonovic from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of the Vilnius University and the Polish Discussion Club has qualified this initiative as a good way to enlarge the alternative to the Kremlin’s mass media. But he notes that all of the Polish channels to be broadcast in Lithuania support the ruling Polish regime. Antonovic wants to see more diversity here as TVP Info is much too pro-governmental.

The first report about the initiative to broadcast Polish TV channels in Lithuania was made in Sept 2017 when Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis was visiting Poland. Before the visit, he said that Lithuania and Poland were entering a new stage of better relations. He said that the breakthrough happened in June 2017, when after long disputes Lithuanian Railways and Orlen (a Polish company controlling oil refinery in the Lithuanian town of Mažeikiai) signed a contract on mutually beneficial cargo traffic tariffs. Skvernelis added that Lithuania also needed Poland’s support in synchronizing its electric power system with the Western European networks and in pressuring Belarus concerning its NPP project.

So, we can say that today Poland is repeating the mistake the EU and the U.S. have committed with respect to the Baltics: spending money on propaganda and brainwashing instead of trying to convince regimes to revise their policies. As long as Poles and Russians feel themselves oppressed in Lithuania, they will continue sympathizing with Russia as a country advocating ethnic equality.

Oleg Lazarev

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