Thursday, April 01, 2010

Europe View 188


You say Lwów, I say Lviv

Apr 1st 2010

A guide to Eastern Europe's most tedious arguments

LAST week’s column dealt with the arcane name squabble between Macedonia (aka FYROM) and Greece. This piece was soon the most-commented on the Economist’s website. That was no thanks to the brilliance of the prose and the lucidity of argument. The subject was one of those issues that attracts bigots, scaremongers and polemicists, with a vanishingly tangential relationship to truth, logic and courtesy.

The article described the row as “the most tedious dispute in the Balkans”. The ex-communist region sets a high standard in such matters, so the epithet is not to be bestowed lightly. Here is an outsider’s guide to a few of the other rows. All the arguments below are a) historically plausible and b) strike most outsiders as quite mad.

Are you calling me a Tatar?

Moldova/Romania A sizeable number of Romanians believe that what is today called the Republic of Moldova is nothing more than a lost province of real Romania, snatched by Stalin out of spite (along with northern Bukovina, which went to Ukraine). The sooner this “pretend Moldova” rejoins Romania the better. Handing out passports to as many Moldovans as possible brings this nearer.

Bulgaria/Macedonia From a certain Bulgarian-nationalist viewpoint, the idea of a discrete Macedonian ethnicity or language is a nonsense—rather like defining “Texan” as an ethnicity in America. Yugoslav Macedonia was a historical accident, and the sooner the detritus joins Bulgaria the better. After that, it will be time to liberate the brother-Slavs of northern Greece.

Slovakia/Hungary According to hardline Slovak nationalists, the whole idea of a Hungarian ethnic minority in the country is absurd. These people (many of whom are Gypsies anyway) should shut up and get on with being Slovaks: ie, speaking Slovak and thinking like Slovaks. Any other behaviour is a sign that they are still imprisoned by their imperial mindset. If they don’t like living in Slovakia, they should go back to Hungary (where, incidentally, the Slovak-speaking minority has dwindled to nothing—proving that it is the Magyars who are the real ethno-nationalists).

Lithuania/Poland Not many people realise this, but most of the people speaking Polish and Belarussian in the area in and around Vilnius are not really Slavs but polonised Lithuanians, the legacy of centuries of forced assimilation. That is a terrible fate, so the right (and kindest) thing to do is to depolonise these people and relithuanianise them. A good way to start is to make sure that they do not get trapped into using foreign Polish letters and silly spellings when writing their names. It is Adomas Mickevicius, not Adam Mickiewicz. Let nobody forget it.

Ukraine/Poland Anyone who spells the capital of Galicia as Lwów is a Polish nationalist who bayonets Ukranian babies for fun. Anyone who says it is spelled Lviv is a Ukrainian fascist who bayonets Polish babies for fun. Anyone who spells it Lvov is a Soviet mass murderer. And anyone who calls it Lemberg is a Nazi. See you in Leopolis for further discussion.

Among the runners-up: “Tatar” is a derogatory and invented name for the inhabitants of modern Tatarstan, who are in fact the descendants of Volga Bulgars. Kievan Rus was not Russian. Any talk of a Ruthenian nation is ill-informed, stupid, possibly mad and the product of Muscovite attempts to split and destroy Ukraine.

Outside pressure has mostly calmed these arguments within formal politics. But on the internet the rows still rage, with tortured facts, arguments and syntax, all mixed with vituperative insults, phoney politeness and seemingly RANDOM Use Of Capital letters. There is a whiff of pyjamas-at-noon, and of people who check their emails in the small hours. Time to get a life?


Leopolis said...

Anyone who spells it Lvov is a Soviet mass murderer.

...Either that, or is maps editor at the Economist! For some reason, your fine publication continues to spell Kyiv as Kiev, Lviv as Lvov... but Yanukovych is Yanukovich and Tihipko as Tyhypko (in Ukrainian it's Тiгiпко).

Bea said...

The Lithuanians fear that the contemporary Poland will not stop before Polonizing the Vilnius region too much and that all the Lithuanians there will need to feel like they live in Poland afterwards and learn Polish. Plus all the Lithuanians will need to learn Polish to spell and read the names of those who call themselves Poles right or pay for spelling them wrong.
Suvalkai region was ethnically Lithuanian as well. Now, it is in Poland, has all names Polonized (like the whole Lithuania had before 1918), only a few of them spelled as Lithuanians wished (after that the Lithuanians gave some prove the Lithuanian names weren't first given by German Nazis during the WWII).
And what about Poles in Vilnius region? They put random pseudo-Polish labels of their streets on their houses, ignore demands of the Lithuanian state and complain to Poland of discrimination, and then Poland complains of their discrimination to the EU.
No matter how forceful or willing the Polonization was. Lithuanians disagree that they shall be called mad nationalists and antiPoles and that the the demands from Poland shall be voiced to them, the demands which are not voiced to Latvians. Poles are let to be Poles much more in Lithuania than in Latvia, but no, it's Lithuania's attitude towards Poles angers Poland and deserves lies that the Lithuanians don't provide to Poles what EU directives require every EU country to provide to its minorities. People may be what they choose to be, but Poles don't demand Latvians to learn to use Polish letters. Then Lithuanians assume that Poland still wants everyone to think that some regions of Lithuania are the second Poland (Nasze - Ours for Poles, on that map). The names of many of those people show that they were more or less Polonized (due to prestige and power of Poland before 1939 in that region). It is true that the whole Lithuania was heavily Polonized before 1918 and Poles had Polish names for every Lithuanian town and city on the maps of that time. Vilnius region was more multicultural, but it always had also Lithuanian population in villages and never belonged to Poland proper before 1920 or after 1939. Soviets kept the population mostly Slavic in the Vilnius region. This Slavic population - Belarussians or Poles was given a chance to learn proper Polish by the Lithuanian state after 1990 and now the state is made wildly antiPolish. That hurts. Poland can't see that it is not thoroughly less nationalistic and less unfair than what Lithuania is. And the Lithuanian nation is smaller and more scared to dispapear like Prussians. It's not about the mere letter w. It's about Poland deciding what Lithuania shall be like and about singling Lithuania out of all countries who have Polish minorities. Poland pushes Lithuania more than it pushes Belarus now because Poland hopes for results from that pushing. And Lithuanians see they will be blamed by Latvia and Estonia for giving up as well, because Russians will start pushing them harder after that.

If Mickiewicz will be written in the Lithuanian passport (not solely in scientific books or newspapers), many Lithuanians will read it Mitskiewits-z, not Mitskiewich as it is supposed to sound and some may just misspell it.

Bea said...

Lithuanians fear that Poland is about to Polonise the Vilnius region completely again. It doesn't sound like a calm dispute about one letter when you see for more details. It looks like another Poland's raid to the Lithuanian territory. You see Nasze on Lithuania on that joke map of Poles and it doesn't look like a mere joke to Lithuanians because Lithuanians are a ten times smaller nation than Poles and they remember Prussians disappear under the Germans.

Astoria said...


Do you really fear that 235,000 ethnic Poles could polonise 3 million ethnic Lithuanians? How would they do it? The Lithuanians don't send their children to Polish schools, while half of the Poles send their children to Lithuanian schools. There's no local Polish TV in your country, and most Poles watch Russian TV anyway. There's one Polish daily with readership around 2000. Take a look at what this newspaper and its readers have to deal with - the State Security Department for posting innocent comments:

Bea said...

And what should I do to know how harmless are those remarks or what ever in the comments of Kurier Wilenski? Learn Polish? Or will you inform me in Lithuanian or English, Astoria? Why shall I trust claims in Kurier Wilenski? Is Wilno nasze a harmless thing to say? Is "go back to your villages or Kaunas or Žemaitija, Lithuanians" a harmless thing to say? Is "We are not gonna learn Lithuanian anymore" a harmless thing to say? Etc.
About TVs, Poles can watch Polonia, Belarussians can watch Belarus TV if they want and pay some 8 Euros per month for cabel TV package in Vilnius region. Or they can pay or do more and create their own national-minority TV station like they created the radio station Znad Wilii. Lithuania is not as rich as Sweden or Norway to provide a TV station for all its bigger minorities for free.
Lithuanians don't Lithuanize the names of Slavs of Lithuania to the level there they'd not recognize them as Slavic. Andrzej Kozlowski is made to Andžej[us] Kozlovski[s], not to Andrius Kazlauskas or Andrius Oželiūnas. Poland lies by claiming otherwise.
And Lithuanians don't want to agree that Warsaw's Kaczynski and other foreigners would decide how Polish shall names and other things in Vilnius region be. If Warsaw or Brussels can decide everything there, then why won't more Poles come to Vilnius region from PL later, etc. The fears may seem irrational to you, but I'm telling you that many Lithuanians feel they are right and they are being humiliated by this preasure.

Astoria said...

Bea, I assumed you could read Polish because you commented on the map printed in Polish.

I don't know if claims in "Kurier Wileński" are true, but in fact they were reprinted in some Polish newspapers. My point was to illustrate how the Poles feel - threatened by the state and its institutions.

Sure they can have a local TV station, but most likely it wouldn't survive. Few would watch it. Poles watch Russian television, read Russian papers, their participation in Polish culture is minimal. But they do want what was agreed between Poland and Lithuania 16 years ago: their personal names written in Polish, signs in Polish (where they are a majority of inhabitants), Polish schools (which are under constant threat), return of land (courts favor ethnic Lithuanians).

If Kozłowski wants to be Kozłowski because his father and granfather were Kozłowskis, what's the big deal? Being Poles they are Lithuanians too. Their language is part of the Lithuanian heritage, which never was exclusively Lithuanian.

Kaczyński would rather not deal with ethnic disputes like this one, but he's under pressure to do something for his fellow Poles. And it is quite an embarrassment for him that he visited Lithuania some 15 times, raising these issues, and accomplished nothing.

I'm afraid your fears of Poles are irrational.

Bea said...


"But they do want what was agreed between Poland and Lithuania 16 years ago: their personal names written in Polish"

The agreement was different: the treaty says that the names shall be written so that they would be pronounced like Poles do and that means that Lithuanians shall write them in passports in Lithuanian to read them like Poles read what's written in Polish.

It was said in the treaty of 1994 that an additional agreement shall be made and signed by Poland and Lithuania about exact writing of the names. That's what the two countries can't agree about now.:)

I, personally, don't mind Poles writing their names as they wish. I, personally, have learned some Polish and I love learning languages. I wanted to give the general feeling of Lithuanians with all my rants.

", signs in Polish (where they are a majority of inhabitants)"

This was not in the treaty of 1994. Polish names, signs are written on the Polish firms, Polish schools, Polish institutions, but they are not names of villages or streets now. Not even all Poles would know on which street does their friend live if the names of streets would be Polonized randomly. Everyone is used to see streets and villages named in Lithuanian for at least 70 years now. :) Names of villages and streets are kept Lithuanian for Lithuanians to feel that it's their Baltic soil they are living on, their country, not "shall be a part of Poland" as some Poles may start to think and talk.


", Polish schools (which are under constant threat),"


There are lots of Polish schools (and they are not under constant threat, they won't be closed if there are enough of kids who wanna attend them and if Lithuania does not lack
money to keep them up)


"return of land (courts favor ethnic Lithuanians)"

Courts may favor rich people before poor people because they are corrupt courts; ethnicity doesn't matter. Courts may favor some Lithuanian official or Tomaszewski from Vilnius over a poor Polish or Lithuanian villager, you know. :( Sad as it is, Lithuania is an unfair country, but not Nazistic.

The treaty can be interpreted diffrently and the general Lithuanian public doesn't know what's written there. The Lithuanian politicians know that the people will be frustrated about that careless clumsy treaty.
And I see that Kaczynski may be frustrated as well.

Astoria said...


Well well, you seem quite familiar with the ethnic stuff in Lithuania. I bet you speak Polish better than me ;-)

1. But to the point. You're right about the treaty - that's what it says. But you miss the context and the spirit. They agreed to leave things as they were - personal names written in Lithuanian preserving Polish sounds - until they'd agree how to write them in some other way in the future. There's only one other way to write them - and that is to use Polish letters. Do you see any other way to fulfill the second part of the agreement concerning personal names? And so, technically, Lithuania does not violate the treaty but certainly its spirit. For the treaty calls for a change, not for no change. And 16 years without change seems like a very long time.

2. Signs. It's not about polonizing Lithuanian names of streets, towns and villages. It's about signs in both languages in areas ethnically mostly Polish. Small rural areas. Doesn't apply to Vilnius despite its large Polish population (314,000 Lithuanians vs. 104,000 Poles).

Let me quote Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner of Human Rights, Council of Europe:

Personal names

The Strasbourg court has stated that "the name is not only an important element of self-identification; it is a crucial means of personal identification in society at large". In one case (Guzel Erdagöz v. Turkey, 2008) it decided that the refusal of the government authorities to accept the preferred spelling of a person’s name violated the right to respect for private life as spelled out in the European Convention (Article 8).

These principles are also relevant in situations where the state language and the minority one are based on different alphabets or scripts. When visiting Lithuania recently I learned that the spelling of Polish names on passports and other official documents had became a controversial issue. However, the government in Vilnius has now submitted a proposal to parliament which, if adopted, would be seen as a constructive step towards fuller respect for minority rights.

Local names, street names and other topographical indications

The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention concluded in the case of Lithuania that the absence of bilingual public signs in certain areas was incompatible with the convention. There appeared to be a contradiction between the Law on the State Language and the Law on National Minorities which ought to be addressed.


It seems that you have many against you ;-): your own citizens, the international court, the Council of Europe, the Polish government, and I bet the EU and the UN. Don't you feel like fighting for a lost cause, and for what?

3. According to your own citizens, here:

the number of Polish schools in the Vilnius region will drop from 100 to 60, and in the city of Vilnius, 5 out of 7 existing Polish high schools will be closed, if the new "reforms" are implemented.

4. Land return. The disproportion between land returned to Lithuanians and to Poles by the courts is huge. This has little to do with rural poverty of the Poles. The Poles from Vilnius are the most discriminated. The problem is so big that the Polish government stepped in - though, obviously, it's not its business - and provides free legal help.

Sure you aren't Nazis, c'mon. The Nazis didn't view Jews and Slavs as lost German tribes to be re-germanized. But the influential Sąjūdis and Vilnija do view Lithuanian Poles as a lost tribe of polonized Lithuanians, don't they?

Jonathan Hibberd said...

Kiev is the English name of Kyiv, which is merely the correct Roman alphabet transliteration of the Ukrainian Київ. I don't see how this has a bearing on what it should be called in English, any more than Italians calling Florence Firenze does on that, or any of the other English names that major cities in Europe are known by.

In common with the Lviv issue, the accusation that is made is that spelling it Kiev is inherently pro-Russian, but actually, if you follow the logic of calling it Kyiv in English, we would have to start writing Moskva as well. Surely Tescos should be castigated for not selling 'Chicken Kyivs'!

Incidentally, I notice from billboards in Kiev that Ukrainian still uses Pekin instead of Beijing. :)