Donald Tusk, the leader of the largest opposition party, the liberal Civic Platform (PO), visited the Polish state of Silesia this weekend. At a public meeting in the city of Bytom, he declared that he was in favor of making Silesian, a regional Slavic language, an official language as a mark of respect for the people who use it. The recognition of Silesian as a language rather than a dialect is a long-standing demand of the Silesian Autonomy Movement (RAŚ).
The RAŚ has in the past managed to get members elected to the provincial council in the region of Silesia. The movement calls for the region to be given autonomy from the rest of Poland. Its representatives on the provincial council have in the past formed a coalition with Tusk’s PO. After the provincial elections in 2018, Poland’s ruling conservatives managed to secure a majority on the provincial council, only to lose it recently as a result of the defection of the regional mayor and other council members to the opposition.
Tusk himself is from a Kashubian background. The Kashubians are a small regional minority living in the Baltic region, and their language is recognized in Poland. During the second world war, Kashubians were conscripted to serve in the German army, and one of those conscripted was Donald Tusk’s grandfather, Franciszek Tusk.
During a visit to Radzionkow, Tusk said that his party would finish “what the Silesians started” and that Silesian would be recognized as a language by law. He feels that this will be a mark of respect for Silesian history and culture. He argued that Silesian has a grammatical structure and is a “literary language,” not a dialect.
Tusk said that this was a matter of being sensitive to the fact that Silesians are proud of their heritage and have a right to their language. He said that since people are engaging in the matter and supporting it in the region, it is time for this recognition to be given.
During the time when Poland was partitioned between the late 18th century and 1918, Silesia was part of Prussia. It took several uprisings after 1918 for Silesia to become part of Poland. In communist times, the region was of critical importance to the Polish economy as the provider of the coal that fired its energy and industrial expansion.
Tusk’s move on the Silesian language is seen as an electoral gambit for the vital swing region of Silesia, which is Poland’s largest area and also its most urbanized and industrialized, and the position he has taken will be seen by many as fanning the flames of separatism. Poland remains a unitary state and one that has been mono-ethnic. However, it does recognize national minorities and their rights, such as those of the German and Belarusian minorities. Moreover, as a result of the mass migration from Ukraine, the face of the country is changing.
Silesia is politically tricky for Tusk’s PO because the party is associated with a program of pit closures leading to conflict with trade unions. The party’s enthusiastic endorsement of EU climate change policies means that coal miners view it with suspicion.