- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

VILNIUS, Lithuania President Bush can expect a hero's welcome today as Lithuania, once a captive of the Soviet Union, celebrates its hard-won invitation to join NATO.
"The Bush visit is unprecedented. It represents a change of Lithuania's status that was inconceivable 10 years ago," said Alexsandras Matonis, a journalist with the Baltic News Service. "I think this visit can only be compared to Napoleon's stay in 1812."
Even before Air Force One touched down on the tarmac late last night, the atmosphere in the Lithuanian capital was a mix of excitement, pride and a little anxiety.
"We're pleased that we're back on the map and that President Bush has chosen to visit our city," Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas said.
"Such a high-profile visit will allow us to present ourselves, not only to the president himself, but to a worldwide audience. We expect throngs of Lithuanians, not only from Vilnius, will want to see and greet President Bush."
The president's visit follows a NATO summit in Prague, which invited Lithuania and six other former communist states to join the Western alliance.
Lithuania, like its fellow Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, will be the first NATO members to have been part of the former Soviet Union.
"It's big step to have such a guest. The demands are high, but it's worth it to briefly have the world's attention," said Ieva Butkute, a representative of a student advocacy group that promotes closer ties between Europe and the United States.
Mr. Bush will meet the presidents of all three Baltic states here in Vilnius, a quaint capital of 600,000.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus will honor him with the Great Cross of the Order of Vytautas.
Though security is tight, Mr. Bush is so popular here that no planned protests nor demonstrations are known to coincide with the visit that will last a few hours before the president jets off to Romania.
Lithuanians can say they, too, have an American president. Mr. Adamkus, who immigrated to the United States as a youth in 1949, returned to his homeland and was elected president in 1998.
During a two-day summit in Prague that ended Friday, NATO invited Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria to join the 19-nation alliance.


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