Staunton, July 17 – Because there are no non-citizens in Lithuania and because the percentage of ethnic Russians there is miniscule, most discussions about that country’s future ignore the ethnic issue. But a Rosbalt commentator says that conflicts among Lithuanians, Poles and Belarusians threaten to become “’a bomb’ under Eastern Europe.”
Russian commentators have often pointed to the fact that both Belarusians and Poles often view Lithuania’s capital Vilnius as “theirs” because it was not part of Lithuania until Stalin made it so, but neither Warsaw nor Minsk has made this an issue. Nonetheless, Denis Lavinkevich says, there are tensions (rosbalt.ru/world/2017/07/14/1630598.html).
Not only are there sizeable Polish and Belarusian communities in Lithuania – the former outnumber the ethnic Russian one there and the latter may be larger than many think, but Lithuania counts on the contribution these two countries make to its economic well-being, Belarus by transit arrangements and Belarusians by purchases.
Indeed, the commentator says, “Vilnius along with Warsaw and Prague is now one of the centers of the new Belarusian emigration, that is, of those who have ‘run from Lukashenka,’” including the European Humanities University which relocated from Minsk to the Lithuanian capital.
Moreover, there is “the religious factor.” Vilnius’ churches are clearly divided into “’Lithuanian,’ ‘Polish,’ and ‘Belarusian,’” and there are “almost no Orthodox among Poles and Lithuanians.” And since 1991, Lavinkevich says, “a generation of people has grown up in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus which is convinced that ‘Vilnius is our city.’”
Among Belarusians, Viktor Yevmenenko of the Belarus Security Blog says, such feeling are especially strong, and today, he insists, “Vilnius for Belarusians is the very same that Mount Ararat is for Armenians. Belarus without Vilnius, like Armenia without Ararat is like someone without a heart.”
According to Lavinkevich, the Polish and Belarusian communities in Lithuania are strengthening because new arrivals find it easier to fit into firms that are controlled and dominated by their co-ethnics.
Andzhey Pochobut, a Belarusian journalist of Polish origin, says that “territorial problems in Polish-Lithuanian relations don’t exist … [But] at the same time, Vilnius is an important city for Polish history and in Lithuania lives a Polish minority, which unfortunately doesn’t have the rights which Lithuanians living in Poland do.”
He points out that “there are problems with the writing of Polish names in documents, with bilingualism in places where Poles live compactly and so on. All these issues should have been resolved long ago … but they remain a problem in Lithuania. This seriously hurts reealtions between the countries.”
Indeed, Pochobut says, “there is a threat that this problem could be used for the unleashing of a conflict between official Warsaw and Vilnius.” He adds that “it is in the interests of both states to eliminate the problems of the Polish minority as fast as possible and resolve all problems in this area.”
Olga Karach, a Belarusian businesswoman in Vilnius, says there is another problem, what she calls “’the strange nationality,’ ‘Russian Poles.’” Most of these are “citizens of Lithuania with Belarusian roots who succeed in ‘masking’ their background: if needed, then they will ‘recall’ that they are Russians or on the contrary that they are Poles.”
According to her, “among the Poles, ‘Russian Poles’ are the city’s second largest nationality group, and there exists a hidden conflict with the Lithuanians,” one “connected in the first instance with the language question.”
Karach says that the Lithuanians have brought this on themselves. After 1991, young Lithuanians did not want to learn Russian anymore but young Russians did even as they acquired Lithuanian as well. Now, the bilingual Russians find it easier to get jobs than do Lithuanians who don’t know Russian.