How can we keep on saying that for almost 20 years Poland and Lithuania’s relations have never been so good when really it appears they are the European Union’s worst? What has happened to our strategic partnership? Was it only a slogan hiding an ugly reality?

The core issue here is the conditions and rights of some quarter million Poles living in Lithuania, which at 6.74% of the total population is the largest ethnic group there, alongside the Russian minority (6.31%). Recently the Lithuanian foreign office summoned Poland’s ambassador to berate him for statements made by Polish politicians “spreading false information” about the minority’s situation. Poles in Lithuania, many there since the 16th century, have been targeted too. Said one prominent member of the Seimas (the unicameral parliament) – “If Poles don't want to integrate themselves into Lithuanian life and culture, they are free to return to their native country.”

Poles caught in a bureaucratic limbo

These are some of many signs suggesting that relations with our neighbour, an EU and NATO member, are just as difficult and troubled as with Russia itself. The problem hinges around the forced Lithuanisation of Polish names, and the return of Polish property confiscated under the Soviet occupation. Time and again, Lithuanian politicians come here to perform the empty gestures – smiling for the cameras, shaking hands, confirming the “special relations” that exist between our two nations. But once the cheerful snaps are taken, the spelling issue – time and again – remains unresolved. Sometimes the negative outcome is announced even before the visit, sometimes during. The reasons are always trivial – some technical details, even typeface problems. Time was when we felt puzzled, wondering why Lithuania still hadn’t signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, ratified by 24 states including Poland. But the Lithuanians let the cat out of the bag when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled against the Polish spelling of names in November, 2009.

We have also been deluding ourselves for far too long that Lithuania will solve the problem of land restitution for the Polish minority. Whatever the Lithuanian reprivatisation law of 1997, Poles living in and around Vilnius face enormous bureaucratic obstacles to win their stolen patrimony back. Pre-war title deeds from Polish archives are not honoured. As a result, property is given to Lithuanians before the rightful Polish owners squeeze through the bureaucratic limbo.

Despite these instances, Lithuania’s politicians love to say that their country has an exceptionally well-developed Polish education system for its Polish minority. But let’s be clear – this is nothing the Lithuanian state should take the credit for. Lithuania inherited the network of Polish-language schools from the Soviet era. And the state is doing its best to reduce their number and make Polish children attend Lithuanian schools. They close Polish schools citing financial reasons, but at the same time build well-equipped Lithuanian schools with swimming pools and gym facilities in the regions where Poles constitute a considerable majority.

The Russians are coming

It is hard to overlook the fact that Lithuanian politicians have a phobia for the Polish language. They say this is part of the national psyche, the complex of a small nation protecting its identity. But such particular sensitivity is nowhere to be seen when it comes to Russian. Lithuanian cable TV networks broadcast dozens of Russian stations. Lithuanian radio stations play Russian songs and young Lithuanians pepper their conversations with Russian words, because it is “cool”, or rather “zdorovo.” According to Lithuanian political scientist Vytautas Radžvilas, Vilnius is set to fall within the Russian sphere of influence even though it will formally remain a NATO and EU member, and despite declarations that it is our strategic partner.

We have long piously talked up our grand mutual history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of 1569 to 1795. But where we saw light, Lithuanian politicians saw darkness. After almost 20 years of diplomatic relations, however, the fact remains that Lithuanian patriotism is founded on anti-Polish sentiment. Polish political elites have become bitterly aware that this partnership is toxic, full of empty promises, spin and manipulation. One thing is certain, it’ll be a long time before our neighbour will win our trust back.