A US Past a Plus To Lead a Nation

Lithuania's new president, sworn in Feb. 26, was a top US official. Many other leaders have American roots.

A joke going here is that the US won't give citizenship to Lithuanians anymore - because they'd simply learn how to run a country and then bolt.

The inspiration for the joke is Valdas Adamkus, a sprightly septuagenarian who fled the Soviet occupation of Lithuania half a century ago and settled in the US. But last year, he gave up his American life to return to the land of his birth and run for president.

It was an exotic twist and Mr. Adamkus was deemed an outsider, particularly as he was of an age when most people contemplate retiring rather than running a country. But he won the January election and was sworn in as Lithuania's second post-Soviet head of state Feb. 26.

"All those years in the US provided me the understanding of how bureaucracy and democracy work," Adamkus told the Monitor in an interview at the presidential palace. Such understanding has worked well for a number of other US-trained world leaders.

President Adamkus speaks Lithuanian with a light accent and uses syntax that resembles English, locals say. But especially for older generations, his US experience was a plus. It made him a "Mr. Clean," untainted by the Soviet totalitarianism that, since the Baltic country declared independence in 1990, many of its more than 3.6 million people want to forget.

"America for a long time was seen as heaven. During the Soviet times it symbolized everything good," says Arturas Racas, a political commentator at the influential Lietuvos Rytas daily newspaper based in Vilnius.

US-trained world leaders

Adamkus, who had to rush to Washington just weeks before inauguration to give up his US citizenship, is the latest in a line of leaders who have lived and studied in the US. The club includes the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, as well as the presidents of France, Mexico, Taiwan, Honduras, and the Philippines. Former Premier Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan also attended a US college.

Two controversial foreign leaders with ties to America are former US marine Hussein Aideed, son and now heir of the late Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed, and Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is believed to be connected to crimes during his US stay.

Then there was former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who also renounced US citizenship for a political career in his native land. Unlike Adamkus, the late Mr. Papandreou used fiery anti-US rhetoric to sweep his party to power in the 1980s.

Adamkus's US cachet seems to be the main reason he defeated a younger but arguably more experienced campaign rival who had links to the former Communists. Adamkus insists that by living so long in America's dynamic democracy, he has much wisdom to lend a nation still adjusting after six years of free-market reforms and whose main priorities are joining the European Union and NATO.

'No political baggage'

"I am bringing my experience of a [political] openness," he says. "This was unknown to this society for 50 years, as was respect for different opinions. I believe that will strengthen my situation. People will look at me as a person who carried no political baggage."

Adamkus lived outside the country for most of his life, but claims credentials as a consistent opponent of Soviet rule. During World War II, he joined the resistance movement fighting for Lithuania's independence, publishing an underground newspaper.

Following the war he emigrated to the US, where as an active member of the Lithuanian diaspora, he continued agitating for independence. From the early 1970s to June 1997, he worked at the Environmental Protection Agency as a top administrator. Since 1972, he has visited Lithuania regularly, but only began to live there full time last year.

But some observers disagree that this past makes him better equipped to run the country than other Lithuanian politicians. There are doubts that Adamkus will have any special access to high-level officials in Washington, although any US link can't hurt.

"Working as an environmental official does not necessarily prepare one to be head of state," pointed out one Western diplomat.

Although detractors refer to Adamkus as "the American," there was none of the flashy American style about his inauguration. Absent were the balloons and flags, and only a handful of locals looked on as his motorcade drove by enroute to the sober swearing-in ceremony.

The new president and his wife, Alma, appeared tired as the day-long ceremonies wore on. Asked how his family felt about his decision to postpone retirement a bit longer, Adamkus was frank. "There were mixed emotions about me deciding to run. But they finally realized that the day has come," he says.

Experience aside, there is one thing Lithuania's new leader unquestionably shares with President Clinton: Both are avid golfers. Adamkus sorely misses the sport in Vilnius and listens eagerly to rumors of plans to build the capital's first golf course, hoping that, like his dream of the presidency, it will one day come true.

"Of course, as president, I'll stay neutral so that I will not be accused of trying to influence the process," he says. But he can't contain a smile over the idea. "If that course opens, believe me, I'll be there."

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