2013.08.09 09:14

Polish-Lithuanian relations marked by cooperation and controversy 2013.08.09 09:14

The Lithuania Tribune presents an interview with Lithuania’s ambassador to Poland, Loreta Zakarevičienė, conducted by Ewa Boniecka from Warsaw Business Journal. 

The Lithuania Tribune presents an interview with Lithuania’s ambassador to Poland, Loreta Zakarevičienė, conducted by Ewa Boniecka from Warsaw Business Journal.

Ewa Boniecka (EB): Poland and Lithuania are both members of the EU and NATO and share several centuries of common history, yet there is plenty of tension in bilateral relations. How would you describe the relationship between the two countries?

Loreta Zakarevičienė (LZ): It’s impossible to characterize Polish-Lithuanian bilateral relations simply. They are neither very bad, nor even bad, as some media have presented them. This is a very irresponsible evaluation. Our relations are multilayered. For example, the youth from our countries communicate without any problems, as do businesses and the majority of our peoples. The problems occur only on one level – the political level – because politicians on both sides play games for their voters. But I will never say that our general bilateral relations are bad; that is only a description of a very narrow part of them.

EB: How has European Union membership broadened the scope of relations?

LZ: Both countries are members of the EU and NATO. We are neighbours, and this means we face very similar problems. To resolve them in order to get the best results, we must act together. This is why our cooperation in EU and NATO is perfect; there are no differences there between our countries.

EB: Lithuania has taken over the presidency of the Council of the European Union at a difficult time for the bloc. What are Lithuania’s priorities for the presidency?

LZ: The general motto of our presidency is: “a credible, growing, open Europe.” We need to continue building a Europe that is credible to its citizens and to the world, a Europe which grows its economy and offers jobs, and a Europe which remains open to its partners and neighbours.

One of our main priorities is to move forward in advancing the Eastern Partnership. We hope that before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November this year, Ukraine will manage to finish its “homework” and the Association Agreement with the EU will be signed during the summit.

The issue of energy is also one of our priorities. Lithuania will seek to strengthen implementation of the commitments by the member states in this field, with particular focus placed on the Third Energy Package. In November, Lithuania will host a high-level conference, concentrating on relevant issues in developing modern energy infrastructure for the EU, and discussing the first list of energy projects of common interest.

Baltic and Nordic states have already created a so-called “common electricity market,” which allows us to choose the most appropriate price. In order to be more independent from Russian gas, in 2014 we will be ready with our LNG terminal in Klaipeda. Poland is doing something similar in building an LNG terminal in Świnoujście.

EB: Lithuania has decided to adopt the euro in 2015. How has it prepared its economy for the move?

LZ: After two years in which our GDP dropped severely, in 2012 we recorded growth of 3.6 percent. In the first quarter of this year growth was 3.5 percent, so there are no signs of recession. However, unemployment is still high, at around 13 percent. In the last few years we have undertaken some difficult reforms to cut budget expenses: there were cuts in public sector salaries, while pensions and social expenses were also reduced. But Lithuanians have accepted this, since they understand the difficult situation elsewhere in Europe.

Our deficit-to-GDP ratio is decreasing. For 2012 it was around 3.2 percent and according to government forecasts, it will be 2.5 percent this year. Our exports are growing, mainly to Russia, Germany and Scandinavian countries. We have a very efficient banking sector which did not see any of the troubles that appeared in the West. There is now only one state-owned bank in Lithuania and it operates very efficiently.

EB: How do you see economic relations between Lithuania and Poland?

LZ: They are quite good. Poland holds second place in terms of foreign investments in Lithuania; in 2012 the value of Poland’s foreign investments in Lithuania was LTL5.52 billion (zł.6.73 billion, €1.6 billion).

There are many small Polish firms that have invested in Lithuania, but the main big Polish investors are [insurance provider] PZU, as well as [oil refiners] Lotos and Orlen. Unfortunately, the operation of the refinery in Mažeikių, which was bought by Orlen in 2006, faces difficulties related to the stoppage of Russian oil deliveries through the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline.

Among Lithuanian firms investing in Poland are [fertilizer producer] Achema, [automotive sector firm] Skuba and [clinical development and consulting services] Scope Baltija.

Construction of a direct power connection between Lithuania and Poland – called LitPol Link – has entered its last stage. LitPol Link, which should be ready at the end of 2014, will connect the Baltic States with the European energy system.

The plan to build the Visaginas nuclear power plant in Lithuania together with Latvia and Estonia is in its final stages. Poland, which initially planned to join the project, decided to withdraw at the beginning of last year. Poland plans to build its own nuclear power plants in the future.

As far as the final construction of the long-awaited Via Baltica route [European Route E67 between Warsaw and Tallinn] is concerned, the Polish portion remains not built. I understand the reasons for this include financial difficulties and certain problems with distributing EU funds for the investment.

All of this shows how many challenges our countries have in common in dealing with various economic issues. This strongly underlines the need for even closer cooperation within the framework of EU economic policy.

EB: Lithuania and Poland cooperate closely within NATO – Polish pilots take part in NATO operations defending Lithuanian air space. How important are those operations and NATO’s role in maintaining Lithuania’s security?

LZ: Our membership in NATO is the anchor of our security. We are participating in NATO operations in Afghanistan and we very much value NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission. As Lithuania does not have its own fleet of fighters, NATO air policing is crucial. We use every opportunity to thank Poland for its rotating participation in that NATO mission.

EB: How do you see Lithuania’s current relations with Russia?

LZ: I would say our relations with Russia are pragmatic. If partners treat each other with respect, dialogue is possible, even if the issues are really difficult. But if one of the partners behaves as if it is bigger, better or smarter, then the conversation ends with zero result.

EB: Polish-Lithuanian cultural ties go back centuries. How are they developing now?

LZ: Our cultural relations are very vibrant. There are constant contacts between our artists, intellectuals, painters, and various cultural institutions. Conferences are organized in both countries dealing with common culture, history and education. It’s a pity that Polish media show no interest in what is going on in the field of culture, science, history or education. Polish media, unfortunately, are not interested in the positive sides of our bilateral relations. And this is why ordinary Poles know almost nothing about this.

EB: Polish people cherish Polish and Lithuania’s common historical heritage, the fact that the two countries were a single state until the partitions of the 18th century. What is Lithuania’s attitude towards that heritage?

LZ: There are Lithuanians who look at that heritage with understanding and love, there are people who do not care about it. We are not as fascinated by history as Poles are. Maybe this is due to the fact that under Soviet rule we had no Lithuanian history at school. I agree with the words of Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian writer, now a professor at Yale University, that sensitivity on the part of both nations is needed when we look at our common heritage. But as Mr Venclova observed, there is often a lack of sensitivity among historians and politicians. They often treat history and its interpretation as a tool to serve political interests.

EB: The Poles living in Lithuania constitute 6 percent of the population, and as such represent the country’s biggest national minority. However, they complain that they are not allowed to write their names using Polish characters, that they have to pass graduation exams in Lithuanian and that authorities refuse to write street names in Polish areas in both languages. How do you see the situation?

LZ: I think that national minorities around the world all have their complaints, so the Polish minority in Lithuania and the Lithuanian minority in Poland are not exceptions from that general picture.

Nobody is discriminating against the Polish minority in Lithuania. Independent research has found that 75 percent of Lithuanian Poles have never felt as if they were discriminated against. However, again, Polish media have never mentioned this.

As to names, according to our constitution, names of Lithuanian citizens in official documents must be written in the official state language. I want to underline that this is required for all Lithuanian citizens without regard to background, whether they are Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or any other nationality.

Our constitution was ratified shortly after we regained our independence from the Soviet Union. At the very beginning we were sensitive about everything that was a possible threat. This is why, when writing our constitution, we included all the possible safeguards. I am sure that the day will come that this question about names will disappear.

When it comes to the language of the graduation exam for Lithuanian citizens with Polish or Russian heritage, or any other minority which has schools in its native language, it is important to note that the transition period [for the law requiring Lithuanian language exams to come into force] has been prolonged from two to eight years. However, this was never mentioned by Polish media.

Moreover, I think it is logical that Lithuanian citizens of Polish or other origin should graduate from school with a good knowledge of the official language and should be well-prepared to study at any university in Lithuania or to hold a position of civil servant.

All incidents against minorities, including the Polish minority, are punished when they occur. We – Lithuanians and Poles – know each other well and we are aware of the fact that we are living together in the European Union. We are all European citizens.