Vilnius, 26 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuania's new President Valdas Adamkus has taken the oath of office, as festivities got underway today that will last past midnight. More protests of a new telephone billing system are also planned to coincide with the inauguration.
In an address to the Seimas (Parliament), Adamkus pledged to work toward Lithuania's integration into European structures, and attain European Union and NATO membership as soon as possible. He also pledged to fight crime, and search for new markets for Lithuanian goods. Adamkus said 'financial order,' and development of culture, education and the health-care sector will be his priorities.
The 71-year-old Adamkus, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was elected president in January, beating his opponent, attorney Arturas Paulauskas, in a very close race. Adamkus has now begun the process of surrendering his U.S. citizenship.
Observers says that many Lithuanians, fed up with increasing crime and corruption, voted for Adamkus, in the hope a "foreigner" would be able to dislodge Soviet-era bureaucrats, who still control much of Lithuania's day-to-day life.
Adamkus replaces the extremely popular former Communist Party leader Algirdas Brazauskas, who was elected president in February 1993.
Brazauskas decided not to run for another five-year term, although many predicted he would have easily been re-elected.
Yesterday, was Brazauskas' last day in office, and he was given a bronze sword and other gifts as ministers and Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius said their goodbyes.
Today's inauguration festivities, which open with the oath of office administered in Lithuania's Seimas (Parliament), are expected to continue until the early morning hours Friday.
Four inaugural balls are planned, including one for businessmen and American guests (at the Chodkeviciu villa where tickets cost 125 dollars each).
Adamkus attends Mass at the Vilnius Cathedral. Afterward, he addresses a gathering in Cathedral square. He then goes to the nearby Presidential Palace, where there will be a ceremony to hand over the official seal.
Inaugural balls begin in the evening, and Adamkus is set to visit each with his wife, Alma.
The telephone rate controversy has hastened the arrival of foreign firms, interested in the privatization of state-owned Lietuvos Telekomas.
Previously, Lithuanians did not pay for local calls. But, a new measure that took effect this month to begin billing for local calls has set off protests, especially in large cities -- and, especially, among pensioners and elderly on fixed incomes.
RFE/RL in Vilnius reports telephone company officials from Denmark and Finland are among those who have arrived this month for meetings with government officials preparing the privatization of Lithuania's telephone company.
This week, Parliament debated and then rejected a move to rescind the new phone rates. The debate and vote coincided with a large demonstration in Vilnius against the new phone rates.