Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius -
Following events in Ukraine and statements by Vladimir Putin that Russia has the right and the obligation to protect Russians anywhere in the world, the Baltic states, which all have sizeable Russian-speaking minorities, have grown increasingly worried about the belligerent rhetoric coming out of Moscow. But playing the card of “minority rights abuse”, so applicable to other former Soviet republics, has not worked with Lithuania’s Russians. On the contrary, the Baltic state’s headache is its other major ethnic minority, the Polish.
“The Kremlin has always tried, is attempting to and will forever be preoccupied with finding a trigger to set off ethnic unrest in [Lithuania],” says Arvydas Anusaukas, a Lithuanian MP and the former chairman of the parliamentary Committee of National Security and Defence. “But it fails.”
Ironically, Russia shares most of the blame for that failure. Kestutis Girnius, a Lithuanian political analyst of US descent, tells bne IntelliNews that the Soviet Union’s efforts to create an empire full of internationalists have backfired. “The Russians, who would flock here from the rest of the Soviet Union, felt so strong and comfortable here – in their eyes, just another speck of the Soviet empire – that they did not waste time setting up any larger organisational structures of a community,” Girnius says.
Most of the newcomers from the east toiled in the big factories in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and Klaipeda, the Baltic seaport. But following the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990 most of this industry collapsed. “With the factories in Lithuania closed, the Russian communities’ life, which revolved mostly around the walls of a plant, has dwindled and no new organisational structures encompassing all the small, scattered communities have been built,” he says.
For the Polish minority, which comprises 6.6% of the total population versus 5.8% for the Russian minority, the story has been quite different. Having coalesced under the party Electoral Action of Poles back in 1994, the ethnic Poles have been a strong political force ever since – especially in Lithuania’s east.
Another aspect is the leadership. “[Henry] Kissinger once drew a vivid comparison between the Soviet Union and European Union, saying that he would always know whom to call in Moscow, but he would not know whom he should ring in Brussels,” Girnius recounts the former US secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner as saying. “The same goes for the Russian and Polish communities in Lithuania: hardly anyone can say who should be reached out to in the Russian community or the party [Rusu Aljansas]. However, the call taker at the end of the phone line for the Polish community is clear – Valdemaras Tomashevskis, chairman of the Electoral Action of Poles.”
On September 2, the second day of a new school year, around 500 Polish pupils, parents and teachers gathered around the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn a city gate in the centre of Vilnius, asking God to heed their problems. The leaders of Electoral Action of Poles (EAP) delivered fiery speeches in the rally, though denied involvement in arranging the event.
The Poles are agitating against the ban on using Polish alphabet letters in Poles’ Lithuanian documents and street signs. They also wants lower requirements for the Lithuanian language exam in Polish schools and want the introduction of a Polish language exam for Polish secondary school graduates. “I am convinced that behind the demands lie a political agenda. I see it being unwrapped a little bit later, perhaps before the parliamentary election,” Girnius says, referring to the parliamentary election that must be held by October 2016. “The claims about the abuse of minority rights are preposterous.”
Bristling, Rita Tamosiuniene, an MP for the EAP, insists that Poles only want education equality and a level of flexibility. “Right, we have many schools here. But we want to be treated in them the way the British treat Lithuanians in English schools, where Lithuanian émigré children can take a Lithuanian language exam. Why can't the Lithuanian authorities allow our children to take a Polish language exam when graduating from school?” she asks.
Girnius accuses the party of feeding the impression among ethnic Poles of being a community under “siege by hostile Lithuanians”, adding that its efficacy so far shows it to be a sound election strategy.
He doubts, however, that Moscow and EAP could be working hand-in-hand in Lithuania. “We tend to blame Moscow for everything around here. But Tomashevskis, the [Polish] party leader, has been for years making those demands [and] the Poles’ demands always pick up steam before an election,” he says. A parliamentary election in Poland will be held in October.
The MP Anusaukas points out that the two ethnic minority groups in Lithuania have different agendas. “Russians have integrated into Lithuania well and their concern is economic prosperity,” he tells bne IntelliNews. “Not the Poles’ under their leadership, however. The Polish community is ‘isolating’ itself from the rest. Whether their cultural and language demands will grow into political demands remains to be seen.”
However, Vytautas Dumbliauskas, a political analyst and lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius, doesn’t see the Poles or Russian minorities as agitators. “The issue of ethnic minorities is troublesome in all the former Soviet territory. The Polish community in Lithuania is more demanding than the others, obviously – this is because of their high-profile leader. The Russians do not have such a vivid figure, but we see flare-ups among them too,” he notes.
Recently, Viaceslavas Titovas, a councilman of Klaipeda Municipality and one of the leaders of the Russian Union in Lithuania, sparked outrage after calling Lithuania “a fascistic state”. He resorted to such rhetoric after the Lithuanian authorities expelled three Latvian nationals, Russians by ethnicity, who had arrived in Vilnius to participate in a conference on “ethno-nationalism”.
But otherwise, notes Dumbliauskas, “the mentality of Russians here is different. Quite western, I’d say. This is not surprising: they see the benefits of life in the European Union: free travelling, big job opportunities and a focus on the economy, not the politics, which we see in Russia now.”
Contacted by bne IntelliNews, Vladimir Vlasov, a councilman of Russian ethnicity for Klaipeda Municipality, said the situation of Russians in Lithuania and elsewhere is incomparable. “Here, you see, prevails order and all like it,” he says, before hanging up.
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