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Lithuania: President Is Upbeat About Country's Future

Lithuania's president, who is on his first state visit to the Czech Republic, today came to RFE/RL's Prague headquarters, where he spoke to journalists about his country's prospects, and also about his own personal feelings as Lithuanian head of state. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 22 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It's a big step from being a worker in a Chicago automobile factory to becoming the head of state of Lithuania. But Valdas Adamkus has managed such a leap in the course of a lifetime marked by sharp contrasts. In fact, it could be said that his life reflects the kaleidoscope of events in the Baltics for most of this century.

Born in Kaunas in 1926, when Lithuania and its neighbors Estonia and Latvia were independent, the young Adamkus was caught up in the tragedies of the Soviet annexation and the German occupation. A teenage resistance member during the war years, he and his family fled westward in 1944, and in 1949 they emigrated to the United States. That's where the job at the auto plant enters the picture, followed by college studies in civil engineering. Adamkus then spent a span of years rising through the U.S. federal civil service, before returning to his homeland to contest Lithuania's 1998 presidential election. He won that election by a narrow margin and -- unusual for a politician -- he has managed to steadily increase his popularity since then.

Adamkus this week made his first state visit to the Czech Republic for talks with President Vaclav Havel and other Czech leaders. While in Prague he visited RFE/RL's headquarters, where he spoke to foreign and domestic journalists. He was asked about the impact of his time in the United States on his political thinking:

"Fifty years is almost a lifetime for the grown individual and I have to say that definitely I grew up within a democratic society, with democratic principles. Like I said democracy cannot be learned from books, and I feel I am part of that system, part of the principles and thinking."

On the broader theme of democratization, Adamkus spoke of his joy at the slow but steady transformation in social consciousness now taking place in Lithuania. He said the whole country seems to be striving toward accepting individual responsibility, the new philosophy so different from that of the last half-century:

"What really is delightful is that the attitude, philosophy, and outlook among the people is changing, especially I would say among the younger generation. What is disappointing for me is that these changes, in terms of the economy, in terms of improving standards of living for people, is not happening as rapidly as I would like to see it."

Turning to foreign policy issues, Adamkus noted that Lithuania lies in a very sensitive geopolitical situation, and he said Vilnius's policy is based on the European Union's guidelines of recognizing states but not becoming internally involved in them. He said Lithuania is strongly committed to good working relations with its eastern neighbors, Russia, and Belarus. Asked specifically about ties with Belarus, Adamkus had a comment which illustrates both the policy and the complexity of applying it:

"I believe there is a very warm feeling (on the part of Lithuanians) towards the people of Belarus, but the difficulty we have right now is the very uncertain situation as to whom we should speak to, because the (Belarus) people are divided on that issue; legally they say that the present regime does not represent actually the people, it represents only the government, the bureaucracy. And of course this is not for us to decide; that's what makes things very difficult."

Turning to the issue of Lithuania's integration into Western structures, the president expressed confidence in prospects for joining both the EU and the NATO alliance.

He said he believes there are good prospects that Brussels will invite Lithuania to open formal negotiations on membership, on the occasion of the EU summit in Helsinki in December. He played down Lithuania's dispute with the EU over the timetable for closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which Brussels considers unsafe. He said there is a common European understanding of the need for safety in nuclear power issues.

As for NATO, he said that -- barring unexpected developments -- he foresees Lithuania becoming a member early in the next century. He said all signs are positive. He noted that Lithuania is already playing a supporting role in international peacekeeping operations, such as in Kosovo.