VILNIUS - One of the most modern airports in Eastern Europe, the Zokniai military air base serves as testimony to Lithuania's successful transition from a Soviet republic to a full-fledged member of NATO. Before Lithuania joined the Alliance, the former Soviet airbase was perceived as a potential threat, according to Zokniai officers. But in the last two years, the airbase, located just outside Siauliai, central Lithuania, has become one of NATO's key investment projects.
"Today, [Zokniai] is a base for NATO deployment, and represents Lithuania's successful cooperation with the Alliance," Lithuanian Air Force Commander Arturas Leita told The Baltic Times.
Upon NATO membership in March 2004, it was determined that Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia, lacked the capacity to protect its own air space. Therefore, Alliance leaders decided that older member-states, superior both in equipment and training, would patrol the Baltic skies.
Belgium was the first to send its fighter jets to Zokniai in March 2004. Today, the Baltic skies are patrolled by Spain, the 10th NATO deployment since accession. The United States, Germany and new member Poland were among those aiding missions in between.
Since 2004, two runways at Zokniai have been modernized with NATO assistance, the second of which was officially opened in October. According to Leita, NATO contributed 46.9 million litas in reconstruction costs.
"The runway is not at all the first, and by no means the last project at Zokniai," Leita said.
The Alliance has already drawn the blueprints for some 18 future projects, aiming to develop the airport for both military and civilian traffic.
"I do not know of any other place in Lithuania where NATO's presence has been so clearly expressed," Leita said.
Yet the Alliance has yielded more than just military benefits in Zokniai; it has also brought a much-needed economic boost to the rural area.
"NATO has already invested 100 million litas (28.96 million euros) in the Zokniai air base and much of the money went to Siauliai companies working at Zokniai. This is already an impressive amount of money," said Siauliai Mayor Vytautas Juskus, adding that the airport would only continue to benefit Siauliai.
"We should not forget that more than 100 military personnel live in Siauliai's hotels, dine in the city's restaurants, and shop at our centers. This will no doubt considerably invigorate the town's economy," the mayor said.
He also noted that, because the NATO mission is deployed close to Siauliai, the town has caught the attention of foreign investors.
What's more, the presence of NATO fighters in Zokniai has already bettered the area's quality of life, according to local families.
Although residents complained about the noise caused by NATO's fighter jets in the beginning, once the Defense Ministry invested in double-paned windows for homes, businesses and schools in 2005, the griping stopped.
The best proof of a changed attitude is the fact that the number of attacks on NATO officers have significantly decreased. During NATO's first year in Zokniai, there were frequent police reports on officer assaults. Today, such incidents are almost unheard of.
"People finally understand the value of NATO's presence in Siauliai and can distinguish the difference between NATO officers and the Soviet soldiers who used to march through Siauliai 20 years ago," Juskus said.
Indeed, that's one thing that Siauliai residents agree on: NATO troops are far better than the Soviets.