«No to assimilation!» – «We must protect our children – our future!» – «Yes to the accreditation of schools for ethnic minorities!» These were the slogans chanted during a March 17 demonstration in Vilnius by teachers and students from the local Polish schools who were protesting the eradication of Polish-language education.
«We, the parents of children in ethnic-minority schools ... oppose the city’s nationalist and discriminatory policy toward the education of ethnic minorities. Today we are defending ourselves and our children», stated Renata Cytacka, the leader of the Parents Forum for Polish Schools in Lithuania.
«We’re furious about the way the Lithuanian authorities are treating us ... They have a double standard, under which some schools receive accreditation while others do not», emphasized Tatiana Korzeniewska, a spokesperson from the Committee to Protect the Władysław Syrokomla School (named for the Polish poet).
The Polish protesters spoke out to defend not only the Polish but also the Russian schools in Vilnius.
The demonstrations were supported by Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL), a political party led by Valdemar Tomaševski, a member of the European Parliament. That party works alongside Russian NGOs to fight Lithuania’s assimilation policy. AWPL included representatives of the Russian Alliance on its ballot during the elections to the Lithuanian Seimas in 2008, and again during European Parliament elections in 2009. And that party affiliated itself with the Russian Alliance once more during the 2011 local elections.
There are currently around 200,000 representatives of the Polish diaspora residing in Lithuania (data from 2011). The history of that diaspora can be traced back to the era of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, when Lithuania was under the rule of the Polish crown. Šalčininkai is seen as the most thoroughly Polish district in Lithuania: 80% of the population there is ethnically Polish. As are almost 19% of the inhabitants of Vilnius.
The Lithuanian government is trying to assimilate its ethnic minorities – which includes Poles. Poles are threatened with fines for posting bilingual signs in places where they make up a large percentage of the population, and the spelling of their surnames is forcibly changed to Lithuanian. Poles even suffer discrimination when land is privatized in «Polish» regions.
Seventy-nine percent of Lithuania’s Poles consider Polish to be their native language (according to 2011 census data). In the 1990s, over 20,000 ethnically Polish children were educated in Polish, but by 2012 that number had dwindled to 13,000. There is no precise data for 2016, but by all indications the Polish language is being increasingly marginalized. The state claims that the closure of Polish schools is a purely economic decision, although money is available for private Lithuanian schools.
Robert Winnicki, the leader of the National Movement party and a deputy in the Polish Sejm, claims, «This problem has been going on for 25 years now. Poland has the wrong strategic objectives for its relationship with the Republic of Lithuania. The goal of the Republic of Lithuania is to ‘Lithuanian-ize’ its Polish minority... This became the goal of the Lithuanian government during the interwar period and has remained a top priority since 1991... The Republic of Lithuania has been successfully ‘Lithuanian-izing’ its Poles for 25 years and Poland has not responded in any way whatsoever».
Winnicki has called this a betrayal on the part of Warsaw and has urged the Polish government to add some ultimatums to its ongoing dialog with Lithuania.
But instead, the pro-government media in Poland (Nowa Europa Wschodnia, Gazeta Polska Codziennie, and others) have launched an attack on Valdemar Tomaševski and Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. Polish activists in Lithuania have also been labeled as «agents of the Kremlin».
Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a representative of the Polish President’s National Development Council and an advisor to the foreign minister, expressed Warsaw’s official point of view. «Those Poles who insist that relations with Lithuania be severed until Vilnius recognizes the rights of Lithuanian Poles are committing a sin against Poland», he claimed. He has made other statements that are even more scathing. Previously, while speaking of his fellow ethnic Poles from the «Eastern Borderlands» (the Kresy region), he had this to say: «Every nation already has its own share of idiots. So it’s a good thing that the people who call themselves the ‘kresowiacy’ are not governed by Poland».
Warsaw is sacrificing the interests of Lithuanian Poles, hoping to work with Vilnius to create and then take leadership of an anti-Russian union in the Baltics. Lithuanian Poles are doomed to be victimized by the assimilation policy for ethnic minorities that is being pursued by the Lithuanian government. In 1989 there were 285,000 Poles living in Lithuania, but today 85,000 fewer remain.