Lithuania and Poland’s brotherhood – the bitterness of slights replaced by hopes of friendship

Polish and Lithuanian flags
Polish and Lithuanian flags DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

The relations of Lithuania and Poland are like those of friends turned enemies and once more back to friends. The road taken by Poland and Lithuania together has seen all sort of things. Experts contacted by the tv3.lt news portal note that while current relations are decent, it is still early to celebrate and in the interim period, they could still change, Vilmantas Venckūnas wrote in tv3.lt.

Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) lecturer, political scientist Marijuš Antonovič believes that the relationship of Lithuania and Poland is currently in an interim stage.

“The president in Lithuania is changing, he will have to form his team and foreign policy, Poland is currently in the midst of a parliamentary election campaign, they will have elections in autumn. At such a time, neither side will take up more serious initiatives in bilateral relations. Thus, Lithuania and Poland’s relations are in the same state they have been since February – there is intensive cooperation in the military, energy and infrastructure spheres,” M. Antonovič said.

Vytautas Magnus University (VDU) Department of Political Science and Diplomacy dean, professor Šarūnas Liekis told the tv3.lt news portal that in recent times, there can be seen efforts to strengthen bilateral relations, particularly in terms of security, within NATO, however, he was sceptical of the “warmth” of these relations.

“So far, no qualitative changes can be seen,” Š. Liekis said.

Lithuania and Poland are strategic partners

Eastern Europe Studies Centre (RESC) director, political scientist Linas Kojala emphasised that Lithuania and Poland are strategic partners and that it is clear that our interests in security, energy, regional cooperation and infrastructure development are very much alike.

L. Kojala pointed to projects in progress that will benefit both countries: Rail Baltica, electrical network synchronisation and increase in NATO forces capacity in the region.

“Most likely, it is no coincidence that Poland backs Lithuania’s position regarding Astravyets and we retain a critical opinion of the Nord Stream 2 project. We could often see that this coordination allowed to develop specific projects even when the bilateral relations atmosphere had cooled,” L. Kojala said.

L. Kojala believes that for a long time, strengthening bilateral relations was obstructed by historical sensitivities, politicians’ pledges, which were not made into concrete achievements, as well as political ambitions. “However, even when politicians interacted rarely, at a certain level, practical long term strategic projects would proceed,” he noted.

According to M. Antonovič, the main problem is significant distrust between Lithuanian and Polish politicians over the unresolved issues related to the Polish ethnic minority and the company Orlen Lietuva.

“This prevented the countries from establishing closer relations, expanding cooperation into other areas and after time, Poland began threatening Lithuania with halting further cooperation in the energy sector if the problems of Orlen Lietuva are not resolved,” M. Antonovič stated.

Lithuanians should invest more in relationship

Š. Liekis says that any friendship demands investment from both sides.

“In the defence sector, the Lithuanians are seeking to attach themselves to the Poles, but don’t invest anything themselves. Do not expect that what the Poles achieved regarding Fort Trump thanks to their relations with the USA will save us as well. There is a need for an understanding of the need for joint investment in mutual security, foreign policy, there is a need for more coordination. As long as the expectation is that someone will do us a favour or will pity us, things will be as is,” Š. Liekis stated.

According to the professor, cooperation between the countries will come naturally when the countries know one another better. Š. Liekis proposes to develop the idea of Lithuanian-Polish cooperation, establish relationships with individual voivodeships in Poland, strengthen the cooperation of cities along the mutual border.

W, Q and X lose significance?

One of the “black cats” crossing the path of Lithuanian-Polish friendship was, for a long time, the writing of names in documents and Polish street name plaques.

According to L. Kojala, these questions are always important, though as of recently, especially since 2014, security-related topics are brought up more often. “But this does not mean that this dilemma need not be resolved, especially considering that Vilnius has promised Warsaw a number of times it would make decisions, whatever they may be,” he points out.

M. Antonovič is convinced that the unresolved problems of Lithuanian Poles prevent Lithuanian and Polish politicians from fully trusting one another.

“They could ruin relations once again or with friction emerging in some other area, they could worsen bilateral relations,” the political scientist mused.

Beneficial to both, but more so for us?

L. Kojala believes that good bilateral relations would benefit both sides.

“Poland understand well that the safe, more West-integrated and resilient to pressure from the East that Lithuania is, in turn, the safer Poland will be. […] Lithuania and Poland are, in a good sense, doomed to cooperate and overcome any disagreements,” L. Kojala said.

M. Antonovič says that Poland has been and will long continue to be a key gate into Europe for Lithuania.

“Without Poland, Lithuania could not fully integrate with the West, particularly in energy and infrastructure. Furthermore, it can be said that Poland is the largest and strongest country with which Lithuania is joined in many common interests, particularly in Eastern Europe,” the political scientist stated.

According to Š. Liekis, Poland will always need partners in the European Union, thus Lithuania is a particularly important country for Warsaw: “They have greater ambitions than just being in the European Union. Poland wants to play greater regional games, thus they always need allies.”

According to M. Antonovič, while Lithuania is far smaller than Poland, it does not mean that our country’s significance to Poland is low. The political scientist says that the countries’ differences in regard to size and capacity is cancelled out by membership in the European Union and NATO, where countries have equal voting rights and weight.

According to him, Poland’s favour to Lithuania increased because of our country’s declaration that Lithuania would not back potential European Union sanctions on Poland.

“This was a truly important step, which helped Poland improve its relations with the European Commission. Add to this that Lithuania has many identical interests and similar views on many questions, Lithuania becomes a significant ally for Poland in European Union and NATO diplomacy despite its size,” the political scientist stated.

Common history – a source of anger or friendship?

Polish-Lithuanian relations have been in various states over the past few hundreds of years. Be it a joint country, the 450th jubilee of whose creation was marked this year or the occupation of Vilnius region in the early part of the 20th century.

M. Antonovič says that our common history is a sort of inspiration, a sort of mythological tale, which displays the potential of bilateral relations.

According to the political scientist, Polonisation is more viewed as a natural process caused by the conditions of a historical period, thus at least on the level of politicians, it is not seen as a problem.

“Politically, the situation of Vilnius region around 1920-1939 was resolved when Poland recognised Vilnius as the capital of Lithuania and both sides established diplomatic relations. The Lithuanian and Polish interpretations of this event differ, but currently, it is historians that are working on this matter. Politicians are more focused on contemporary state interests and the creation of a joint future,” M. Antonovich said.

L. Kojala muses that as of yet, the historical relationship and its influence on contemporary bilateral relations between Lithuania and Poland have not been fully cleared up.

“On one hand, at one point, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe, combining our two countries. On the other hand, Lithuania’s path to independence, also inter-war foreign policy was strongly based on a critical view of our neighbour,” L. Kojala said.

Politicians and academics should continue talking

According to the head of the RESC, both politicians and academics have to continue the dialogue and find a relationship that would be suited for today.

“It is clear that any differences between Lithuania and Poland today serve in the interest of third countries,” L. Kojala said.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania came to need a union with Poland in the midst of a war with Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy. The 450th jubilee of the signing of the Union of Lublin was commemorated this year. While the negotiations stalled for a long time, the two sides came to terms and on July 1, 1569, the Union of Lublin was signed, creating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. One of the most memorable episodes prior to the signing of the union was the Lithuanian delegation head Jonas Chodkevičius‘ speech to Žygimantas Augustas.

J. Chodkevičius fell to his knees and said while crying that Lithuanians defended their motherland from Moscow as much as they could and “now have to yield to obstacles, fate and the circumstances of the times.” J. Chodkevičius asked Žygimantas Augustas “to conclude so that for neither our, nor your descendants would this turn into slavery and shame.” According to contemporaries, both the Lithuanian delegation and a large part of the Polish nobility present also came to shed tears.

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