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Polish-Lithuanian Education Dispute Spills Over

Changes in Lithuanian schools further strain already-frayed ties.

by Wojciech Kosc 16 February 2012

WARSAW | The decision in December by Poland’s largest energy utility, Polska Grupa Energetyczna, to pull out of a Lithuanian nuclear power station planned jointly by the three Baltic countries and Poland was framed in economic terms.


The official reasons behind PGE’s exit from the project, which had been on the drawing board for years, stressed the economic difficulties and pointed out that PGE is involved in another nuclear plant to be located in Poland.


To listen to some commentators in Lithuania, though, you might think the Polish government was using state-owned PGE to punish Lithuania for what many Poles see as its longstanding discrimination against its Polish minority.


Polish boy in LithuaniaA screen grab, with added English subtitles, from a report on Polish TVN television about a boy who claims he was beaten by Lithuanians for speaking Polish in the street. Source: Polvenger/YouTube.


Two years ago, an ill-tempered quarrel broke out over the use of Polish names in Lithuanian documents.


Now the Polish government charges that changes in Lithuania’s high-school graduation exam will put the Polish minority at a disadvantage. Prime Minister Donald Tusk asked his Lithuanian counterpart, Andrius Kubilius, in November to show “good will on [your] side with regard to changing the education law.”


There is no formal link between Lithuanian education policy and Polish energy policy. However, former Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas likely spoke for many on both sides when he recently told a Polish radio station in Vilnius, "the decision for PGE to pull out of the [nuclear] project was political, just as the decision to get involved in it was political.”


Poles make up the largest minority in Lithuania. According to 2007 estimates, the Polish community numbered 212,000, or 6.3 percent of the country's population. The Russian community is also large, comprising 5 percent of the total, but is mostly of recent origin, while Polish speakers have lived in what is now Lithuanian territory for hundreds of years. The two countries share centuries of joint statehood as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Later, when the Polish state was restored after World War I, its borders contained a slice of modern Lithuania, including the capital, Vilnius, or Wilno in Polish.


In 2010, Warsaw went to bat for the right of Lithuania’s Poles to spell their names in official documents using Polish diacritical marks. Polish-speakers also requested bilingual street signs in predominantly Polish areas.


The spelling dispute remains a sore point. On 17 January Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis restated his government’s position that allowing variant spellings on official documents would violate the constitution. Putting bilingual place-name signs in areas with Polish communities, however, is “doable,” he said, according to the Polish Press Agency.


The school dispute broke out last year when Lithuania adopted a new education law that, in part, revised the comprehensive exams Lithuanian secondary school students undergo in order to graduate. Dusting off complaints that have surfaced off and on for years, Polish officials, media, and Polish organizations in Lithuania fumed that the changes would disadvantage students at Polish-language schools.


Starting in 2013, students in minority-run schools will have to take the same Lithuanian-language part of the exam as Lithuanian students. About 22,000 students attend schools run by the Polish community.


"The changes are prejudicial to Polish-speakers because poorer results on the graduation exam will harm their chances of admission to university," said Janina Lisiewicz, editor of Nasza Gazeta, a newspaper of the Association of Poles in Lithuania.


The law also requires minority schools to teach history and geography in Lithuanian. Currently Polish-language students spend two to five hours per week studying in Lithuanian, depending on grade level.


"Poles speak Lithuanian because you have to speak it to get around here. And it's not true what the Lithuanian media are saying, that Poles don't want to learn it. We do, but we don't want the authorities to twist the system so that it puts Poles in a worse position," Lisiewicz said. “It smacks of a plan to show minorities where they belong.”


Lithuania Polish schoolStudents at a Polish-language high school in Vilnius tell TVN’s reporter about the pressure to speak Lithuanian. Source: Polvenger/YouTube.


Lisiewicz and other Polish activists in Lithuania also say Polish schools tend to be better than Lithuanian ones, and they accuse Lithuanian authorities of manipulating data, by comparing the best schools in Vilnius with the results of rural Polish schools to bolster their claim that the new law will improve rather than harm Polish students’ test scores.


Lithuanian Poles are also upset about plans to end government subsidies for schools with classes of fewer than 25 pupils starting next year. Polish schools, often located in rural areas, tend to have smaller class sizes. Without subsidies they may have to close, with children going either to a more distant Polish school or to a local Lithuanian one.


Lithuanian Poles are not merely bombarding Warsaw with pleas to take action. They think they can gain enough political power to take action themselves.


"The changes in the educational law should be postponed by a few years at least. The best way to introduce those changes would be that the new rules start with the first grade so that everyone has an equal chance,” said Albert Narwojsz, a member of Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL), the main political voice of the Polish community, who unsuccessfully ran for local office last year.


He added, “If the new rules take effect now, how would minority students, educated from different curricula, be able to make up for differences in just two years?"


AWPL regularly wins seats in the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament. The party is now readying for this fall's parliamentary elections.


Even though AWPL has just three seats in the current parliament, its planned coalition with Russian Alliance, a party of the Russian minority, could win 10 or more seats in the 141-member chamber, enough to make AWPL an important political player in Lithuania’s highly fragmented parliament.


The party has optimistic goals, especially considering that it has never been in government.


"AWPL will want to be in the new government and, if possible, take the ministries of agriculture, economy, transport, and, first of all, education,” Narwojsz said.


If that happens, its top priority will be to revise the new education law to eliminate discrimination against minorities, he said.


Should AWPL join the next Lithuanian government, it may be hampered by the growing sense of distrust between Vilnius and Warsaw. In the Polish capital, ties with Lithuania are perceived as being at their most strained in years. "Relations with Lithuania, contrary to what the Lithuanian side is saying, are not blossoming and are not satisfactory. We think they should be better," Maciej Szymanski, the Foreign Ministry’s liaison officer with the Polish diaspora, said at a meeting of a parliamentary commission on Poles abroad in January.


In a letter to the ministries of foreign affairs and education, the commission called for the government to devise an educational support program for the Polish minority in Lithuania and to propose concrete steps to help Polish-language schools.


These would not be unprecedented moves. Recently, the Polish government has held training sessions for Polish-Lithuanian teachers and organized summer “leadership schools” for Polish-speaking teenagers to perfect their Polish language skills and learn social activism. Warsaw also provides books and other materials to Polish schools in Lithuania.


The commission also asked the government to raise its concerns about minority education in Lithuania internationally in order to get a "relevant reaction of international organizations to Lithuania's violations of minority and human rights.”


In a reply, the Foreign Ministry said the ministries of education and science were better placed to respond to such concerns. However, the letter shed light on the sources of Warsaw’s grudges against Lithuania. “Despite [Polish] efforts, the policy of Lithuanian authorities toward minorities – burdened with 19th-century anxieties, anti-Polish and nationalist stereotypes – is not changing, or is changing to the disadvantage of the Polish minority,” it said.


In November, the OSCE’s high commissioner on national minorities, Knut Vollebaek said he was “worried” about the education dispute during a visit to Lithuania.


“It is tension, not a conflict but tension. My aim is to try to identify the problem before it escalates into a serious conflict," Vollebaek told the LTV news service, according to the Baltic Course news site.


Lithuanian authorities, however, have so far dismissed the complaints by Polish organizations. Education Minister Gintaras Steponavicius told Lithuanian television last year that the calls to revise the education law were nothing more than early campaign actions by AWPL designed to boost its support in an election year.

Wojciech Kosc is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw.

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