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Europe: Many Countries Vie To Be The Heart -- And Soul -- Of The Continent

At least five Central and Eastern European countries -- Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, and Poland -- claim to have the geographic center of Europe on their territory. For these countries, such claims are more than mere trivia. They are an economic, as well as a symbolic, way to show they are just as European as their more prosperous Western neighbors.

Prague, 22 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Get in line, Belarus. Geographers in Minsk recently announced that the center of Europe is in northeast Belarus. Belarus thus becomes the latest Eastern or Central European state to lay claim to the honor of being the geographic center of Europe.

The Center of Europe Club also includes Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia. For these countries -- after half a century of life behind the Iron Curtain -- laying claim to the title of geographic center of the continent serves as both a symbol of national pride and proof of their orientation toward the West. At the same time, it's a good opportunity to make money and attract tourists.

So, in which country does the real geographical heart of Europe beat?

Lithuania seems to have the strongest claim, confirmed by the French National Geographic Institute. Jean George Affholder is a researcher at the institute, which in 1989 officially identified the geographic center of Europe as being in Lithuania. "We have located the center of Europe in Lithuania near the [eastern] village of Pornusces," Affholder said.

Finding the center of Europe means first defining the size of the continent. But determining its borders is not an easy task. For example, some measurements include the Danish Faroe Islands, as well as Iceland, which are quite distant from the continental mass; others do not.

The French geographers think their method of measurement is the most advanced. "A few definitions of 'center' exist. It is possible that certain countries have chosen, for instance, the average of the longitude extreme and latitude extreme. It can be a definition, but this is not ours. It is a quite simplistic definition. Ours is based on the notion of [a] center of gravity," Affholder said.

Affholder said the French National Geographic Institute's concept corresponds most clearly to the continent's physical reality. He said the institute defines Europe as stretching from Iceland in the west to the highest peak in the Urals in Russia to the east. The southern reaches of the continent extend to the highest peak of the Caucasus Mountains.

Affholder recalls that the report caused enormous enthusiasm in Lithuania when it was released in 1989. Lithuania was a country eager to regain its independence from the Soviet Union. "The fact of being the center of Europe meant for Lithuanians an additional asset to serve their independence cause," Affholder said.

Jan Miskovsky from the Geographic Department of Charles University in Prague supports the opinion of the French National Geographic Institute. "Their method of how to measure the center of Europe is that if you cut out the European continent [on a map], then the 'gravitational center' is the center of Europe. And by measuring, [the French National Geographic Institute] came to the conclusion that it is in Lithuania," Miskovsky said.

Lithuanians have already turned the site into a tourist attraction. It fits perfectly into the country's efforts to join the European Union.

In 1991, a young Lithuanian sculptor, Gintaras Karosas, established near Pornusces what is now known as Europe Park. Karosas told RFE/RL that, a decade later, the park spans more than 55 hectares and has almost 70,000 visitors each year. The park contains modern sculptures made of stone and wood. "We have the whole museum in the open air. We have created an infrastructure, buildings housing the administration of the park, [and an] art center, where artists come from all over the world and take part in our events," Karosas said.

Karosas said Europe Park plays a political role in the country. On 9 May, Lithuanians celebrated Europe Day, and the ceremonies took place in Europe Park. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other state officials behind Vilnius's efforts to join the EU were present.

The park is also a successful business enterprise. A simple entrance ticket costs $2, or $12 for a guided tour. The tours are conducted in English, Russian, and Lithuanian. The park also houses a restaurant and a post office where letters are marked with a special stamp containing the emblem of the park.

Europe Park's website says, "Let's meet in the middle of Europe -- It is only within 20 minutes' drive from the center of Vilnius!"

Not everyone supports Lithuania's claims.

Jerzy Ostrowsky, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, proudly told RFE/RL that "for sure the geographical center of Europe is in the Polish town of Sochowola, some 60 kilometers from Byalystok," a small town in eastern Poland. He said Polish geographers established the site in the 18th century. An iron column is set in the center of the town to mark the spot. Ostrowsky finds no reason why Polish geographers should change their attitude.

An official from the Slovak Institute of Geography told RFE/RL that, although it is not confirmed internationally, many Slovak geographers consider Kremnica, a town in the center of the country, to be the geographical center of Europe. The site is marked with a boulder.

One competitor seems willing to concede the title to Lithuania, however. Viktor Shevchenko is a doctor of geographical sciences at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. "I support the position of the French [National] Geographic Institute. They have estimated that [the geographical center of Europe] is in Lithuania. I trust them," Shevchenko said.

Shevchenko admitted there are some politicians and geographers in Ukraine who still believe the geographical center of Europe is located in western Ukraine. A monument was built on the site in the village of Delovoe at the end of the 19th century. Another monument was erected during Soviet rule. Shevchenko admitted that these markers alone do not prove anything.

Ask Lithuanian officials for proof of their title, though, and they've got something to show: an official certificate awarded to them by the French National Geographic Institute.