Insight Poland

Interview: “The Silesian identity must be recognized as an ethnic minority”

silesian-identity-autonomy-poland

Warsaw, Poland – A national census will be launched in Poland on April 1. On this occasion, Polish citizens can choose to declare another ethnic or national identity. The MEP Lukasz Kohut is campaigning for Silesia to be recognized as an autonomous region. We were able to talk to him about Silesian identity and future political prospects.

Silesian regionalism is relatively unknown in Europe. However, this historic region in south-western Poland has its own identity and language. Although it does not enjoy any special recognition within the Polish Republic, various political actors are fighting for a better recognition of Silesian particularities – be it its autonomy, its identity or its language.

Among these actors is Lukasz Kohut, MEP and member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. In the forthcoming national census in Poland, due to start in the spring, the inhabitants of Silesia will have the opportunity to declare their ethnic identity and, if necessary, Silesian as their everyday language.

Mr Kohut, how would you define Silesian identity?

The Silesian identity is closely linked to Silesia, a border region located at the crossroads of different cultures – German, Polish and Czech. Silesians are an ethnic minority with their own language and culture. In the course of history, Silesians have been divided by borders imposed by neighbouring nation-states, themselves hostile towards each other.

Does regionalism have a strong political orientation in Poland?

Regionalism is not yet a widespread idea in Poland’s political discourse. However, it is safe to say that the more European, open and democratic a party is, the more it will accept the notions of regionalism and autonomy.

What is the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s stance on regionalism?

PiS is a nationalist, conservative, right-wing populist party that excludes the idea of regionalism and does not understand its ideas and values. PiS politicians – almost all of them – perceive regionalism as a threat to the territorial and social unity of Poland, a threat to the Polish “national character”. This is obviously absurd.

Regarding the forthcoming census, what are your goals? Generally speaking, how do you go about mobilising the population around regionalist and identity-related claims?

Before answering, I would like to stress the fact that the word “claim” has a negative connotation in Polish, and that I prefer to speak of self-determination. It is also a more accurate description, because we have never been deprived of our Silesian identity – it has been denied and silenced, but has resisted, even in the most difficult times.

With regard to the census itself, my main task is to fight for the right of citizens to freely express their ethnic and linguistic affiliation. In the previous census in 2011, 800,000 people declared a Silesian nationality, and 500,000 reported using Silesian as their everyday language. There is concern that, in addition to the massive propaganda of the PiS government, the census will be conducted online, which may endanger the anonymity of participants. People may be afraid and discouraged from declaring their true national and linguistic identity.

Historically, how has the Polish government reacted to regionalist demands? Has the political stance remained constant, or has it changed from one regime to another?

I think that the problem of regionalism was largely misunderstood and rejected throughout the 20th century, and it is still the case today. Sometimes regionalists have managed to achieve some of their goals – for example in the inter-war period, when there was a Silesian parliament (Sejm in Polish) with a number of prerogatives over regional issues. But generally speaking, the policy of the Polish state in recent decades has been to deny regionalism.

The current government, with its nationalist obsession, is by far the worst since 1989. But I believe that over time and with political renewal, the situation could change. I see many young democratic politicians, whether left-wing or centrist, understanding and supporting our cause. I am also confident that we will soon be ready to talk openly about the historical difficulties in my region, for example the tragedy in Upper Silesia in 1945.

What kind of autonomy are you looking for? Are you inspired by other models in Europe?

I would like Silesia to become a strong region in a federal European Union. I am a strong supporter of a federalist structure that puts the regions at the heart of governance, that is where they are most effective. A very good example is the federal system in Germany. The Silesian identity must be recognised as an ethnic minority, Silesian as a regional language. I mentioned this last year during a session in the European Parliament, and I did so speaking Silesian. The Polish translator could not understand what I was saying – what more proof does it take to finally admit that Silesian is a distinct and full-fledged language? We should have the right to protect our culture and traditions, like all other ethnic groups and other linguistic and cultural minorities.

What type of alliances are possible within the European Parliament with representatives of other regionalist movements in Europe?

I think we already have a functional and effective platform for cooperation – the Intergroup for Traditional Minorities, National Communities and Languages. The members of this group represent a multitude of nations, cultures and languages of the EU, and our cooperation is very fruitful.

Recently, the European Commission reacted to the “Minority SafePack” initiative which collected one million signatures in favour of the protection of ethnic-national minorities. What do you think of this initiative and the Commission’s reaction?

The European Citizens’ Initiative is a great initiative, containing nine concrete proposals to improve the situation of ethnic, cultural and linguistic minorities in Europe. Bringing this initiative to fruition was a fine achievement for its organisers (the Federal Union of European Nationalities) and above all – for the 1.2 million European citizens who signed the petition. The Commission’s reaction is very disappointing. And frankly unacceptable. We are not going to give up so easily.

Interview conducted by Thomas Laffitte and originally published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.