Lithuania and Poland

Bad blood
Lithuania and Poland seem to have hit an icy impasse

Jan 20th 2011 | VILNIUS | from the print edition

POLAND was one of Lithuania’s best friends in January 1991. As Soviet
troops tried to impose a puppet regime in Vilnius, Lithuania’s foreign
minister, Algirdas Saudargas, fled to Warsaw, ready to head a
government-in-exile if the worst happened. Polish politicians
condemned the Soviet crackdown. It failed, but 14 unarmed protesters
were shot and crushed by tanks, with hundreds maimed or injured.

Twenty years on, at ceremonies to commemorate these events, Poland was
represented by only a low-level delegation, announced at insultingly
short notice. Poland’s patience is at an end, says a senior diplomat,
citing Lithuanian foot-dragging on restitution of pre-war Polish
property, broken promises on language rights for the ethnic Polish
minority, attempts to undermine its schools and ill-treatment of a
Polish-owned oil refinery.

Lithuanians are incensed and feel bullied by their bigger neighbour.
Lithuania is the only country outside Poland to offer Polish-language
education from infancy to adulthood, they point out. Latvia’s
arrangements for its Polish minority are broadly similar. Ethnic
Lithuanians in Poland have problems, too. So why the fuss?
In this section

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Ties across the Mediterranean
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»Bad blood
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Some think the thaw in relations between Warsaw and Moscow has sparked
mischief-making. Others suggest that Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign
minister, has a personal vendetta against Lithuania (he insists he
does not). But personalities do play a role. Lithuania’s president,
Dalia Grybauskaite, was to blame for a spectacularly stormy meeting
last year with Bronislaw Komorowski, her Polish counterpart, say
outsiders who were there.

The two prime ministers, Audrius Kubilius of Lithuania and Donald Tusk
of Poland, get on fine, unlike their combative foreign ministers. One
reason may be that Mr Tusk is a member of Poland’s small Kashubian
minority and thus more sensitive to the worries that small ethnic
groups have about big ones.

Plenty of people think the row has gone too far. Polish newspapers
criticised the decision to snub the Lithuanian anniversary ceremonies.
America wants both countries to co-operate more, not least in regional
military exercises planned for this year and next. Estonians and
Latvians fear the dispute may block better road, rail and power links
to the south-east that will end their isolation from the rest of
Europe.

The real problem lies in differing interpretations of history. Each
country insists that the other behaved badly in the past but skates
over its own mistakes. After Polish troops seized Vilnius (then called
Wilno) in 1920, the pair spent the inter-war years in a stony fury.
That ended in disaster for both. Some worry that this sorry history
may repeat itself. Yet the blunt truth is that Poland can afford to
ignore Lithuania, whereas Lithuania and its Baltic friends cannot do
without Poland.