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Interview: Lithuanian President On Building 'Common Neighborhood'

Lithuanian President Valdus Adamkus spoke to RFE/RL in Vilnius, May 2 (RFE/RL) This week Lithuania hosts a regional conference of newly-minted EU and NATO states and their neighbors, who are eager to join the two exclusive clubs. The meeting will bring leaders from the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea region to Vilnius for discussions on May 4. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney will also fly in to show Washington's support for the gathering, whose aim, according to organizers, is to build a "common vision for a common neighborhood." Conspicuously absent from the project is Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten interviewed Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in Vilnius, and asked about the idea of a "common vision" and what participants hope to achieve.

RFE/RL: President Adamkus, the conference you are hosting -- which is co-sponsored by Poland's President Lech Kaczynski -- is officially entitled a "Common Vision For A Common Neighborhood." Could you briefly explain what this common vision is based on?

Valdas Adamkus: A "common vision" to me is the vehicle which is going to commit to us to build a Europe based on common values and linked by economic integration. This is today very important within the concept of the European Union. I believe we are building a new community which definitely has common goals. And basically, this is what we definitely need today.
"The old democracies in Europe, which were the great powers going back a couple of centuries ago, are right now playing a different role. And there is some competition, I would say, of ideas, of leadership."

RFE/RL: The meeting you are hosting in Vilnius includes countries that are quite far apart geographically, culturally, and economically. What "common vision" do countries as diverse and geographically distant as Lithuania and Armenia share, for example?

Adamkus: Let's look back into history. Armenia already, close to 2,000 years ago, was the basis for Christianity, for some ideals, which are so dear to Europe. And today, when we are talking about common values, a common neighborhood, we definitely should look back at history and include that which today is just as important to the European community as it was going back, back, back.

RFE/RL: Does Lithuania, now that it is a full-fledged member of NATO and the EU, have a special role to play in promoting democracy to the east of the EU's borders? Will you serve as an advocate for states like Georgia and Ukraine that are seeking closer ties and eventual membership in these organizations?

Adamkus: In a way, yes, because I believe that since we have already joined the European Union, we believe that our neighbors should definitely enjoy the same privileges, the same rights, and live under the same rules as we do. This is the rightful place for them to be, assuming that responsibility. Because let's face it, Europe is one continent.

RFE/RL: Europe may be one continent, but ever since U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld coined the terms "old Europe" and "new Europe," there has been debate about divisions within the EU, with new members like Poland and Lithuania seeming at times to be closer to America than to older EU members like France and Germany. Is the EU divided or has the issue been resolved?

Adamkus: I wouldn't say it's resolved. Let's face it, the old democracies in Europe, which were the great powers going back a couple of centuries ago, are right now playing a different role. And there is some competition, I would say, of ideas, of leadership. And definitely in one sense it is very good. In another sense, I hope there definitely will not be a dividing line between the "new" countries and the "old" countries. We are speaking about a European community, we are speaking about an ideal world community believing in the same principles and ideals. The experience of division, of Europe especially, going back to the 20th century, should serve as a reminder of the tragedies, of the sacrifices the European people have paid for those dividing lines, which are always based on ideology -- and going one step further -- on autocracy and dictatorship. Hopefully, this is passed, and we have learned the lesson.

RFE/RL: Speaking of America, how do you evaluate U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's planned appearance at the Vilnius conference? Does it send a message?

Adamkus: First of all, it indicates one thing -- that we are not just talking about the European continent, which has certain values. I believe we are talking globally, in that respect. Whatever you say, the United States probably still represents the bastion of democracy, which has been already in existence for more than 200 years. The United States was a strong, outspoken member of the world community, drawing the attention of all the nations and all the people to those ideals. And [Cheney's] presence right here shows the willingness of the United States, of the people of the United States, to share their experience and their values with us, the new democracies.

RFE/RL: Where does Russia fit in? Some in Europe have expressed concern that Moscow is trying to reassert itself in countries along its border. They see Russia competing for influence in Ukraine and the Caucasus against the West, potentially causing new divisions in this "neighborhood" you are trying to unite. Do you see Russia acting as a spoiler?

Adamkus: To even consider that this is being done intentionally probably would not be representing the full truth. I hope that time will show to the new generation of Russians, who are maybe reluctant at the present time to accept the values to which the European Union commits itself -- that they will come slowly to it. And maybe I am too idealistic or naive by stating this, but I hope that these kinds of meetings, with different groups of people getting together, will eliminate the factor you have just mentioned. I mean that somebody is not playing according to the rules of fair play.

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