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Hope in the Baltics

September 1, 1998
Washington Times

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This week, Lithuania celebrates the fifth anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from its territory. This event remains a significant milestone in Lithuanian history, and set the tone for the development of a mature foreign policy agenda. But, arguably, the most impressive - and least reported - achievement in modern Lithuanian history may be the election of Valdas Adamkus as president.

A member of the resistance movement against Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Mr. Adamkus fled Lithuania in the 1940s and settled in the United States. After spending nearly 50 years in America, which included working as a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Adamkus decided last September to take his knowledge and experience of, what he calls the greatest democracy, and return to his native country and run for the presidency.

Mr. Adamkus was considered a dark horse candidate. His critics attacked him for being too American, having lived abroad for so long, and for running for office without a party affiliation. To his credit, Mr. Adamkus was able to turn these criticisms into advantages. By rejecting the calls to join a political party, Mr. Adamkus believed he could move his country away from the all-too-pervasive atmosphere of partisan politics -- which, as he said did not serve the national goals and expectations of the people. Mr. Adamkus defied his critics and won the run-off election by less than one percentage point, and, was sworn into office on February 26, renouncing his U.S. citizenship earlier that day.

His goal is like that of most Central European leaders - to guide his country into the arms of Europe, particularly into the European Union and NATO. In addition, he has focused his foreign policy energies on two main areas: Russia and the United States. His agenda centers on maintaining strong, peaceful bilateral relations with Lithuania's biggest eastern neighbor, Russia. Since the Soviet withdrawal in 1993, Vilnius has sought to ensure that these relations remain as friendly and cooperative as possible. Thus far, it has paid off. In May, Mr. Adamkus took an historic step by telephoning Russian President Boris Yeltsin to discuss bilateral relations. On a recent visit to Vilnius, Russian Foreign Minister Primakov praised Lithuania for its relationship with Russia and suggested that Estonia and Latvia could learn a lot from the Lithuanian example.

While current relations are good, areas of difference exist between the two countries. The most notable difference is over NATO membership. Lithuania strongly favors joining the Atlantic Alliance because it seeks to be part of a European security system that guarantees peace and stability on the continent. Russia remains opposed to Lithuanian membership. Mr. Adamkus sees Russian objections as more a psychological issue than real. He says that, to many Russians who still live with the memories and pain of World War II, NATO represents some kind of aggressive military force. He believes that over time and with the strengthening of democracy in Russia, Moscow's objections will subside. He concedes, though, that it may take a decade to convince the younger generation of Russians that NATO is not a threat.

Equally important is Lithuania's relationship with the United States. In January, the U.S.-Baltic Charter was signed, enhancing cooperation and assistance between the countries. Mr. Adamkus wants to see more U.S. business investment in Lithuania and hopes that the United States will strengthen its commitment to the further existence and support of Lithuanian aspirations to become members of the European community.

Having spent nearly 50 years in the United States, Mr. Adamkus is quite familiar with those issues that concern Americans. One of these is the still lingering issue of the crimes committed against Jews in Lithuania during World War II. Currently, there are at least three cases pending against individuals accused of committing such crimes, the most notable being that of Aleksandr Lileikis, a Lithuanian national accused of killing scores of Jews at a death camp. Mr. Adamkus is concerned that the slow pace at which these cases are being brought to trial has tarnished his country's image.

He has made it his personal mission to see that every responsible individual who has committed a crime has to stand trial regardless of health. In May, Mr. Adamkus announced that Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, with assistance from France, Israel, and the U.S., would establish a national commissions to examine the crimes committed against their peoples from 1941 to the end of the Cold War.

So, what does Mr. Adamkus hope to accomplish by the end of his term? He told me that he plans to stay true to himself and will uphold his promises to the people. "That is probably the best reward: not popularity and standing in the polls, but understanding and seeing that your work actually brings fruit and (you) can recognize some benefit from it." He recognizes that his country faces an uphill battle, at least in the near term, of being awarded full membership in NATO and the EU, yet, believes that this day will come -- hopefully by the end of his five-year term.

Daniel P. Fata is a Research Associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.