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Note: this is an article about Central Lithuania, an arguably semi-independent state created in part of Vilnius region. For reading about conflict over Vilnius itself or the whole Vilnius region, check Vilnius region
Central Lithuania (Polish Republika Litwy Środkowej, Lithuanian Vidurine Lietuva) was a semi-independent state, created in 1920 by allegedly rebellious soldiers of the Lithuanian-Belarusian division of the Polish army.
50 years after January Uprising 1864, the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania was under military government of Imperial Russia. Poles and Lithuanians were discriminated: Polish and Lithuanian languages were forbidden in public, Poles were forbidden to buy real estates and special tax (contribution) had to be paid only by Poles.
In the aftermath of WWI, the area was divided onto 3 parts.
- The 'Lithuania proper', consisting of historical Samogitia, Sudovia and western parts of historical Aukstaitija and Dzukija, was the westernmost part, with a mostly Roman Catholic and Lithuanian-speaking population, with significant Polish, Jewish and German minorities.
- The easternmost part, consisting mostly of present-day Belarus, was mostly populated by Orthodox Belarusians with minorities of Poles and Jews inhabitating mostly the larger towns.
- Central Lithuania, populated by Polish-speaking majority and Lithuanian and Belarusian speaking minorities, with its capital at Vilnius.
The national composition of the latter area is difficult to measure as many Lithuanian historians claim that both Russian, Polish and Soviet censuses are not reliable. The only source acceptable for both Poland and Lithuania seems to be the Russian census of 1897 and, to some extent, the Nazi 1942 census. According to the first census of the Russian Empire, 1897, the inhabitants of the city of Vilnius were distributed by nationality (determined basing on the declared native language) as follows.
- Russians — 20.9% (many of them were Russian-speaking Jews, as may be inferred from the "Religion" tables)
- Ukrainians — 0.3%
- Belarusians — 4.3%
- Poles — 30.1%
- Lithuanians — 2.1%
- Germans — 1.4%
- Jews — 40.0%
- Tatars — 0.5%
- Others — 0.4%
The population of the Wilno province according to Russian census was distributed as follows. Keep in mind that the significant territory of the province had Belarussian majority and as of today is included into Belarus (mostly into the Hrodna voblast, but also into Minsk voblast and Vitsebsk voblast).
- Russians — 4.9%
- Ukrainians — 0.1%
- Belarusians — 56.1% (including Roman Catholics)
- Poles — 8.2%
- Lithuanians — 17.6%
- Germans — 0.2%
- Jews — 12.7%
- Tatars — 0.1%
- Others — 0.1%
On the other hand the Lithuanian authorities argued that the majority of Poles living there were polonized Lithuanians and that Lithuania had the same right to create a multi-national country as Poland.
Following the start of the Polish-Soviet war, in 1919 the territory was occupied by the Red Army which defeated and pushed back Polish self-defence units, but shortly afterwards the Bolsheviks were pushed back by the Polish Army. 1920 saw Central Lithuania occupied by the Red Army for the second time, although Russia officially recognized the sovereignty of Lithuanian Soviet Republic over the city. Lenin was probably waiting for the capture of Warsaw, to occupy the remainder of Lithuania. However, when the Red Army was defeated in the Battle of Warsaw, the Soviets made the decision to hand over the city back to Lithuania. Despite the agreements, Lithuania seized the southern Suvalkai region (Polish: Suwalki region) as well. The reason for this was that several parts of the region had clear Lithuanian ethnic majorities. When the Polish army reached Lithuanian lines (August 26, 1920), a local war was started that lasted for several days until the Lithuanians were pushed back.
This made the compromise even harder to achieve and the newly-established state of Lithuania declined any negotiations on the status of the Vilnius area, claimed it as its capital city and denied any Polish influence over it whatsoever. A cease-fire agreement was signed on October 7 1920, but it did not solve the issue. Polish commander Jozef Pilsudski ordered his subordinate, General Lucjan Zeligowski, to defect with his '1st Lithuanian-Belarusian Division' and capture the city, without declaring war on Lithuania.
A new country was created under the name of the Republic of Central Lithuania (Republika Litwy Środkowej). General Żeligowski took command of all the military forces of the newly-established state and on October 12, 1921 he announced the creation of a provisional government. Soon the courts and the police were formed by his decree of January 7, 1921, and the civil rights of Central Lithuania were granted to all people living in the area on January 1 1919, or for five years prior to August 1, 1914.
The symbols of the state were a red flag with Polish White Eagle and Lithuanian Vytis and with a coat of arms being a mixture of Polish, Lithuanian and Vilnian symbols, similar to the Coat of Arms of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
There were extensive diplomatic negotiatiations behind the scenes. Lithuania proposed creating a confederation of baltic Western Lithuania (with Lithuanian as an official language) and Central Lithuania (with Polish as an official language). Poland added a condition that the new state must be also federated with Poland, pursuing the Józef Piłsudski's goal of creating the Miedzymorze federation. Lithuanians chose to reject this compromise. With nationalism sentiments rising all over Europe, many Lithuanians were afraid that such a federation, resembling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from centuries ago, would be a threat to Lithuanian culture, as during the Commonwealth times the majority of Lithuanian higher society (nobility - the szlachta) was voluntarily polonized.
The general elections had been decreed on January 9 1921, and the voting law was to be issued prior to November 28 1920. However, due to the League of Nations mediation and the Lithuanian boycott of the voting, the elections were postponed.
Meanwhile in Brussels peace talks were held under the auspice of the League of Nations. The initial agreement had been signed by both sides on November 29 1920, and the talks started on March 3 1921. The League of Nations to accept the Polish proposal of a plebiscite on the future of Central Lithuania. As a compromise, the so called "Hymans' plan" was proposed (named after the Belgian envoy to the conference). It consisted of 15 points, among them were:
- Both sides guarantee each other's independence.
- Central Lithuania is incorporated into the Federation of Lithuania, composed of two cantons - the Lithuanian-inhabitated Samogitia and multiethnic (Belorussian, Polish, Jewish and Lithuanian) Wilno area. Both cantons will have separate governments, parliaments, official languages and a common federative capital in Vilnius/Wilno.
- Lithuanian and Polish governments will create interstate commissions on both foreign affairs, trade and industry measures and local policies.
- Poland and Lithuania will sign a defensive alliance treaty.
- Poland will gain usage of ports in Lithuania.
The plan was more or less acceptable for both sides, but it had certain disadvantages. The talks came to a halt when Poland demanded that a delegation from Central Lithuania (boycotted by Lithuania) be invited to Brussels. On the other hand Lithuanians demanded that the troops in Central Lithuania be relocated to the line of the October 7, 1920 cease-fire agreement. Both claims were a step too far.
A new plan was presented to the governments of Lithuania and Poland in September 1921. It was basically a modification of "Hymans' plan", with the difference that the area of Klaipeda was to be incorporated into Lithuania while Central Lithuania was to be granted a certain level of internal autonomy instead of a cantonal status. However, both Poland and Lithuania openly criticized it and finally this turn of talks came to a halt as well.
After the talks in Brussels failed, the tensions in the area grew. The most important issue was the huge army Central Lithuania fielded (27,000). General Żeligowski decided to pass the power to the civil authorities and confirmed the date of the elections (January 8 1923). There was a significant propaganda campaign over the issue of the elections as both Poles and Lithuanians tried to win the support of other ethnic groups present in the area. Eventually, Lithuania decided to boycott the elections stating that according to International law the territory is still a sovereign part of Lithuania proper and only the Bolshevist Socialist Party of Lithuania and Byelorussia took part in it.
Apart from the Lithuanian organisations that eventually decided to boycott the voting, most of the parties that took part in it were supporting the idea of incorporation of the area into Poland - with different grades of autonomy. 63,9% of the entire population took part in the voting, but among different ethnic groups the attendance was lower (41% of Belarusians, 15,3% Jews and 8,2% of Lithuanians). Poles were the only major ethnic group out of which the majority of people voted. This and possibility of fraud were the pretexts for Lithuania not to recognise it. Also, election area was different from the area of occupied Vilnius region, it included some areas which weren't part of Vilnius region, and did not included a significant part of Vilnius region. The two biggest political groups in the newly-elected parliament were the "Polish Voting Committee" (43 seats) and the "Popular Councils" (34 seats). All the other groups gained 29 seats altogether.
The parliament gathered on February 1 1922 and on February 20 after a fierce discussion incorporation into Poland had been passed. The Polish Sejm passed the law proposed by the Central Lithuanian parliament on March 22 1922 and two days later the Republic of Central Lithuania ceased to exist.
The border changes were accepted by the League of Nations in 1923, but Lithuania declined to accept the Polish authority over the Vilnius area and it was not until the 1938 ultimatum, when the Lithuanian authorities resolved diplomatical relations with Poland and de facto accepted the borders of its neighbour. After the Soviet-Nazi pact and the Polish Defence War of 1939 Lithuania was given Vilnius and its surroundings up to 30 km on October 10, 1939. The major part of the Vilnius County however was passed to Byelorussian SSR.
- History of Lithuania
- History of Poland
- History of Vilnius
- Vilnius region
- Occupied territories of Baltic States
- Pages and Forums on the Lithuanian History
- ethnic composition
- symbols of Central Lithuania
- Depatriation and Resettlement of Ethnic Poles
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