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10 Years After Defying Soviets, Lithuania Preens for Wider Role

Europe: As in the other Baltic nations, leaders tout huge strides while seeking entry to EU and NATO.


VILNIUS, Lithuania — Many people would be hard pressed to find this country on a map. Like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania pretty much dropped out of the news after its population and Parliament defied the Soviet army's tanks in 1991 and achieved independence.

But as Lithuania marks the 10th anniversary of its David-versus-Goliath standoff with Moscow, a showdown that proved to be a crucial stage in the dismantling of the vast Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its leaders are calling attention to the huge strides made in their calm corner of Europe.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have been transforming their economies, have all held elections and seen peaceful transfers of power, and are working to adjust laws and modernize armies in the hope that within the next few years they will become members of both the European Union and NATO.

"When we consider that the country was deprived of the free world, being isolated for 50 years . . . and two generations grew up under strict dictatorship, to recover and join the free democracies in just 10 years I believe is an accomplishment which everyone in the world can be proud of," said Valdas Adamkus, the former U.S. citizen who is now Lithuania's president.

The silver-haired 74-year-old, who until 1997 was the Midwestern regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spoke Thursday, on the eve of Lithuania's Independence Day, in the elegantly restored presidential palace in the center of Vilnius' old town.

Asked in an interview to describe Lithuania's current place in the world, he smiled and said, "We are an emerging old country." Today's Europeans may not know Lithuania well, Adamkus said, but "our place in history goes back for almost 1,000 years of existence."

Adamkus' office is next to this capital city's 450-year-old university. The district was neglected and depressed during the ebb of the Soviet empire but now is a symbol of national renaissance, with repainted pastel-colored 17th and 18th century houses, busy restaurants, cafes and patisseries, and shops that would not be out of place in nearby Scandinavia or points west.

During Soviet times, few Lithuanians had the opportunity to go abroad. Now travel placards advertise tickets to Los Angeles for $500, and there are shops selling imported African carvings and perfume bottles from Egypt.

From his office in what was once Communist Party headquarters, Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas champions even more determined free-market reforms. The 44-year-old, who just passed 100 days in office, voiced pride that two-thirds of Lithuania's gross domestic product already comes from the private sector. "Of course, we take these things for granted now, but we did have to achieve them."

Vytautas Landsbergis, the music professor who led the independence movement in 1990-91 and who remains--albeit somewhat grayer and mellower--a Conservative member of Parliament, said the successes of the past 10 years were "outside of the imagination of many countries and leaders."

Under Landsbergis, the Parliament unilaterally proclaimed in March 1990 that Lithuania was reestablishing independence after its incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 by Stalin.

What followed was a year of pressure and intimidation from Moscow, Landsbergis recalled in an interview, highlighted by the Jan. 13, 1991, attack by Soviet armored troops on demonstrators at the city's TV tower. Fourteen people were killed.

A videotape of young people being crushed under tank treads was smuggled out of Lithuania that night, galvanizing Western opinion behind Lithuania, whose Parliament by then was surrounded by concrete barricades and guarded by the people.

By the end of summer, after an aborted putsch undermined Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the independence of all three Baltic states was an accomplished fact.

The attack on the TV tower "compromised Gorbachev deeply, and it encouraged and obliged Western governments to reply in a just manner," said Landsbergis, who still muses that Gorbachev could have adopted a more cooperative stance. Had he just let the Baltic countries go--acknowledging that they had been forced into the USSR illegally--it might have allowed the Soviet Union to last a bit longer, he believes.

Landsbergis today is one of the many advocates of better relations with Russia, having even attended a dinner recently with Russian tycoons in Vilnius to talk about economic cooperation.

Nevertheless, he chides Russia for failing to give back Lithuania's former embassy in Paris, and for not assisting the return of Lithuanians and their descendants who were deported to Siberia by Stalin.

The president, Adamkus, spoke eagerly of his plan to meet in Moscow next month with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and said Lithuania is not holding its experiences as part of the Soviet Union against the Russian people. "We want a good working neighborly relationship," he said.

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