Can we expect a thaw in Lithuanian-Polish relations?

DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Both countries’ previous heads of state, Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania and Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland, personified the aspirational friendship between their respective nations. Friends on a personal level, Adamkus and Komorowski would visit each other’s capital for independence day’s celebrations. However, the tradition was discontinued under President Dalia Grybauskaitė, in part due to tensions over the complaints of Lithuania’s Polish-speaking minority.

When Duda, who assumed Polish presidency in August 2015, picked Estonia for his first foreign visit, many in Lithuania read it as a clear message from Warsaw that Vilnius needed to try harder to restore the former cordiality.

Until recently, not even their shared anxiety over growing adventurism of Russia seemed to have brought the two countries closer together. But last week, Grybauskaitė and Duda finally met for a one-on-one conversation in Croatia which hosted a summit of regional leaders.

However, says political scientist Andžejus Pukšto of Vytautas Magnus University, a meeting in a regional conference is no substitute for a state visit that Grybauskaitė and Duda have yet to exchange.

“This is a second-tier visit, when presidents meet up for a talk, but it cannot replace an official visit which shows a special attention to the country and allows to discuss many issues,” Pukšto has told BNS.

Government-level relations between Lithuania and Poland remain very cold, he says, since neither the presidents, nor the two countries’ premiers of cabinet ministers have exchanged official visits. A turn could be expected after Lithuania’s general elections in October at the earliest, he adds.

“Great that the dialogue picks up, since there are many difficult and pressing issues between the two countries. We can hope for a push on the presidential level, but let me note that the outgoing Seimas [parliament] has not been very proactive in fostering relations with Poland. One of the first tasks for the newly-elected Seimas will probably be rebuild ties with Poland,” Pukšto, head of the Politics Department, says.

Political observer Jacek Komor agrees that there is a chill between Vilnius and Warsaw.

“If political relations were good, the initiative for a meeting would have come from Vilnius or Warsaw. But the idea to discuss regional security was proposed by the president of Croatia. Why do Croatians, who live at a safe distance from Russia, take up the initiative and not Vilnius which is almost on the frontline?” Komor tells LRT.

Linas Kojala, director of the Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre, notes that the chill between Vilnius and Warsaw has persisted for a long time now and Duda’s choice to go to Estonia for his first foreign visit was yet another sign of it.

“There are long-standing bilateral issues that, clearly, neither side wants to address in order to change the dynamic. That is, to make concrete decisions without which a thaw is hardly possible.

“On the other hand, I am glad that when it comes to security, Lithuania’s and Poland’s positions in the NATO summit in Warsaw and in international formats overlap a great deal and there is sufficient cooperation,” Kojala says.

“I think we should distinguish between several levels. On the top level, there is some chill and we are constantly reminded of certain dilemmas. Meanwhile on the practical level, pragmatism and rationality prevails and cooperation between the countries is quite successful, despite the not-so-cordial rhetoric that is thrown around,” he continues.

“The meeting in Croatia is a good push for closer time, because one of the problems is that, outside the presidential level, we in Lithuania do not have many direct contacts with Polish politicians and Polish decision makers. Sometimes such a lack of informal or semi-formal conversations contributes greatly to the general atmosphere. In this particular instance, I do not believe that the meeting [between Grybauskaitė and Duda] will effect a radical turn, that we will see essential change, but its one small step towards better understanding of one another, Kojala says.

In a statement released after the meeting President Grybauskaitė said that Lithuania and Poland shared an understanding of geopolitical challenges.

The two presidents discussed cooperation in energy and defence issues, strategic economic projects, cooperation within the European Union and NATO.

“Lithuania and Poland have a shared understanding of geopolitical challenges. We live in the same region and close cooperation alone in all areas could ensure safety for people of Lithuania and Poland,” Grybauskaitė said in the statement.

However, it contained no reference to what is thought to be the main point of contention: complaints of Lithuania’s Polish-speaking community and Warsaw’s position on them. To sort out this issue, a conversation of two presidents may not be enough.

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