Polish and Lithuanian relations at a crossroads: both positive and negative aspects of the new government

Polish President A. Duda and Lithuanian President G. Nausėda in Vilnius. Foto T. Baura @lrytas.lt

On November 11, neighbouring Poland marked its Independence Day. Just like Lithuania, the neighbouring country reclaimed its independence in 1918, but Polish-Lithuanian relations have varied greatly, Viktorija Rimaitė wrote in lrytas.lt.

While it is recognised that recent years have marked a warming period in Lithuanian-Polish relations, with the ruling coalition changing in Lithuania, this could change.

S. Skvernelis’ influence

“As of late, Polish-Lithuanian relations have improved and credit is due for Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis – he was the first politician to contribute to improving relations, something that Gitanas Nausėda joined in with later on. Much has been done in four years in terms of military and energy security, cooperation, creation of and continuation of electrical power links, creating joint infrastructure,” Vytautas Magnus University (VDU) docent, political scientist Andrzej Pukszto spoke of the current circumstances.

He was echoed by a colleague from VDU, political scientist Dr Mindaugas Norkevičius, who noted that “the warming of relations could definitely be seen through both the visits of the Polish president and prime minister to Lithuania and also through the visits of Lithuanian representatives to Poland, something we have seen markedly more in recent years than during the tenure of President Dalia Grybauskaitė.”

Despite this, M. Norkevičius emphasised that the current Polish ruling party Law and Justice was ideologically more akin to S. Skvernelis and the Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union than with the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) who just won the elections.

“Thus, we should not expect deeper cooperation between completely different political elites. The two dominant conservative parties differ – the Polish far-right conservatives have few ties to the TS-LKD, even when looking at their values.

We can expect less cooperation between the rulings elites, but cooperation on matters ranging from ethnic minorities to economic development questions will continue,” M. Norkevičius said.

The rule of law as a challenge, ethnic minority questions as an aid

According to A. Pukszto, S. Skvernelis was inclined to disregard rule of law problems in Poland. This was something that suited Poland very well because, in this context, it had a very good partner that was beneficial to it, one that would never criticise in EU institutions the disregard for the principle of the rule of law.

“The coalition agreement features a section on foreign policy where it is emphasised that our foreign policy will be based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Thus, it is likely that this is a sign that Lithuanian policy toward Poland will shift a little. But once again, Lithuania has little room for manoeuvring because Poland in an irreplaceable partner in military and energy security,” he said.

Indeed, the coalition agreement also details value principles for foreign policy. It reads that “We will actively speak up against any breaches of human rights and democratic freedoms and defend those fighting for freedom across the globe – from Belarus to Taiwan. […] We will ensure the continuity of transatlantic ties in foreign policy and will uphold the national agreement on defence. We will deepen Lithuania’s involvement and active participation in forming EU policy.”

While the disregard for the rule of law could cause tensions between the Polish and Lithuanian ruling parties, the situation could be remedied by attention to ethnic minorities.

“From what we are hearing, it appears that the new Seimas and cabinet will dedicate more attention to ethnic minority questions and this has been the core problem in the cooling of Lithuanian-Polish relations all the way since 2010. The parties began talking about renewing the law, which regulates ethnic minorities in Lithuania, something that hasn’t happened since 2010. This could potentially resolve some problems.

The parties that won the elections have similar things to say about the writing of names with Latin lettering, with more emphasis on namely Latin letters, rather than diacritical markings. This will automatically boost relations between the two countries,” VDU political scientist M. Norkevičius said.

A. Pukszto concurs that the new coalition’s promise to dedicate more attention to ethnic minority questions could be a new and excellent connector in the relations between the Polish and Lithuanian ruling parties.

The EU and Poland – uncertainty?

While M. Norkevičius observed that the incumbent ruling parties have avoided stating a clear position on the protests ongoing in Poland over the ban on abortions, which was caused by a desire to avoid worsening bilateral relations, A. Pukszto highlighted that if the current majority did abstain from commenting on this question, we can expect different behaviours from the new government. This will be based on not only value convictions, but also a desire to avoid worsening relations with the EU.

“Lithuania is very pro-European and in favour of all positions, which emerge from the EU perspective. Poland is currently walking down a path of closing itself off – the same path that Hungary has gone down.

Lithuania supports the EU’s positions, but if the question emerges whether EU financing should be distributed on the basis of upholding the EU’s value principles, in terms of the two countries of Hungary and Poland where legal questions clash with the fundamental values of the EU, Lithuania would likely waver. It would have doubts because it would thus be sacrificing its relations with Poland. This would be a question of priorities and the new government will likely see the EU as a priority,” M. Norkevičius explained.

Nevertheless, political scientist A. Pukszto explained that the maintenance of good relations with both the EU and Poland will, for the near future, be facilitated by how certain questions will simply not be on the EU agenda due to having to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Lithuania might not unconditionally support Poland as was up to now. We have heard statements from the EU that perhaps there’s a need to suspend Poland’s right to vote in the European Council, but most likely, these questions will not return to the EU agenda all that soon, given the coronavirus. If they do, it would indeed be a major dilemma for Lithuania,” A. Pukszto predicted.

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