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Lithuania Seeking NATO Membership

November 19, 2002

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VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) _ President Valdas Adamkus, who spent five decades in exile in the United States after fleeing the Red Army, says it wasn’t fear of Russia that led Lithuania to the verge of NATO membership.

``I reject this philosophy that Russia’s the enemy waiting to invade Western Europe,″ the former Chicagoan told The Associated Press ahead of this week’s NATO summit in Prague. ``Those days are over.″

In an interview at his 14th-century palace in the capital of Vilnius, the 76-year-old head of state insisted his country sought membership in the U.S.-led defense alliance mainly ``to share responsibility for the security and future of Europe.″

Adamkus was in Washington during the Sept. 11 attacks and saw smoke billowing after the Pentagon was hit. He said those events made Lithuania even more determined to contribute to world stability via NATO.

And that’s the message he plans to give President Bush, who arrives in Vilnius on Friday for a two-day visit after a NATO summit at which this Lithuania and six other former communist countries are expected to get invitations to join the alliance.

``I want to say I consider the U.S. the leader of the free world, and Lithuania wants to be on the same team,″ Adamkus told AP.

Adamkus, who moved back to this former Soviet republic in 1997, has faced criticism for his friendly nods toward Moscow and for being too quick to accept U.S. decisions.

Supporters say its his knack for wooing U.S. leaders that was a key factor in winning the coveted NATO invitation.

``When Americans and Adamkus speak, their frame of reference is the same,″ said Rasa Razgaitis, the Vilnius mayor’s chief of staff. ``That certainly makes the decision-making process easier.″

Membership in NATO has been a key goal for Lithuania and neighboring Latvia and Estonia since they regained independence during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Adamkus, who was elected president by a razor-thin margin in 1998 elections, fled Lithuania at 17 _ stowing away on a German military train _ as Soviet troops invaded and began arresting political opponents in 1944.

He ended up in Chicago, where he worked on an auto plant assembly line, then got a college engineering degree. Later, he rose to the top ranks of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, praised for pursuing industrial polluters.

After he was elected, Adamkus renounced his U.S. citizenship as required by the Lithuanian constitution. He also declines to accept his annual presidential salary of $40,000, living on the annual pension of $60,000 he receives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The average salary in Lithuania is about $6,000 a year.

Still, many asked whether someone who’d spent most his life in a place where democracy and free markets were taken for granted possibly understand a people who’d barely known either?

Even his Lithuanian set Adamkus apart. He speaks with an American accent and his word choice _ sometimes drawing on idioms that fell out of use after World War II _ was sometimes the butt of jokes.

Within a year after his return, though, his approval ratings soared to 80 percent and opinion polls suggest he’s a strong favorite to win re-election in a Dec. 22 vote.

``I always felt Lithuanian,″ he said, a Lithuanian flag at his shoulder and a paperweight with a U.S. presidential seal on his desk. ``But you can’t wipe out 50 years of your life: My most creative and energetic years, I spent in the U.S.″

In Lithuania’s parliamentary system, the president isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the country. But he’s the main foreign envoy and he plays a critical role in forming new governments.

Adamkus has not shied away from controversy, calling on Lithuanians to confront the 1941-44 Nazi occupation era when 240,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed. During the interview, a red book, entitled ``Auschwitz 1940-1945,″ lay on the edge of his desk.

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