Four seconds and 28 days

  • 2002-01-31
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus doesn't have a good track record when it comes to visits to North America.

In the fall of 1999 he went ahead with a trip to Washington, to Chicago, his home town of many decades, and a stopover in Canada. This was despite rather public statements by then-prime minister Rolandas Paksas that he wasn't going to sign on to a deal giving U.S. company Williams ownership and control of the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery in northern Lithuania.

Paksas made good on his promise. Two of his ministers resigned while the Conservative Party he belonged to seemed ready to cut off his head.

Adamkus got back in time to accept Paksas' belated letter of resignation. But the oil stain had already seeped past the first page into future presidential itineraries to North America.

When Adamkus left for North America again in July 2001, Paksas was again prime minister. And again, the government was coming apart at the seams.

Adamkus made it back in time to witness a struggle for the post between Paksas, now a member of the Liberal Union, acting prime minister Eugenijus Gentvilas, and the new majority's choice, social democrat Algirdas Brazauskas.

Just bad luck

Then the president went to Washington in the fall of 2001, to meet U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, a meeting president Bush had said he might "drop in" on. The words from Bush's speech in Warsaw that June were still almost ringing in the air: NATO "from the Baltic to the Black Sea."

This was supposed to be the clincher, the power meeting, the backroom deal to make sure Lithuania got a dance card at the NATO expansion summit in Prague in 2002.

There was only one little problem. You might call it scheduling, or just bad luck. Adamkus' visit to the White House never took place, that afternoon of Sept. 11.

The stargazers at the Lithuanian president's office thought they finally had a sure thing in the U.S. visit planned for January 2002. Not only would Bush be hanging around the White House, he would meet personally with Adamkus in the Oval Office.

Adamkus and his entourage would visit Washington, travel on to Chicago, and then the president would take his annual vacation on the Mexican Pacific coast at Ixtapa. Then came the call from the White House, asking if the Lithuanians might come a week earlier than planned. NBC television would be filming "a day in the life" of President Bush to advertise its prime-time hit "West Wing."

With the phrase "from the Baltic to the Black Sea" still hovering somewhere near waking consciousness, and dreams of Bush and Adamkus telling the American public NATO needed just such a partner, eager Lithuanian presidential staff rescheduled a meeting with Estonian President Arnold Ruutel and left immediately for Washington.

NATO mania

They met Bush on Jan. 17. NBC was there. Afterwards Adamkus told reporters that if he had harbored any doubts that Lithuania would be invited to join NATO later in the year, those doubts had been expelled.

Bush didn't invite him to go four-wheeling in the Texas desert, like he did with Putin. But then Adamkus is over 70 and, well, already had vacation plans.

But what Bush did do was to say, reportedly, that if any country deserved NATO membership, that country was Lithuania.

Lietuvos Rytas, the Lithuanian daily, ran an editorial piece calling Bush's statement a "promise" that Lithuania would get an invitation in Prague.

Almost on cue, the Italian news agency ANSA ran a report based on unnamed U.S. State Department sources in Rome that the Bush administration was in favor of taking Slovenia and Lithuania along with Estonia and Latvia into the fold. The BBC Monitoring Service ran the item, and Baltic News Service in Vilnius also passed it on for public scrutiny.

Highly-placed U.S. State Department sources in Rome told The Baltic Times there was no substance to the report, and that the Bush administration had not yet made up its mind one way or another.

Despite exuberance back in Vilnius, Lithuanian Ambassador to Washington Vygaudas Usackas was also more reserved in statements to BNS, saying only "the decision will be made this fall."

So what good did Adamkus' latest U.S. trip really do? It cost Lithuanian taxpayers in excess of $8,000. He got 15 minutes of fame on the McLaughlin Group talk show, plus a few nameless references to "the Lithuanian president" in American newspapers, and a handshake with George W. Bush aired by NBC, comprising exactly four seconds in a day in the life of the U.S. president.

Safe hazards

To add to all the fragments of PR, there was a speech. Adamkus, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Administration employee, used the pulpit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington to talk about "Lithuania's return to nature."

He told the audience that his country had inherited heavy polluting factories from the Soviet era, and cited the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery as an example, long subject to supply interruptions and unable to compete because of outdated equipment.

"All that changed when, in 1999, the American company Williams began operating, which immediately began modernizing the factory and reached agreement with the Russian company Yukos for the long-term supply of oil," Adamkus said.

Williams hasn't modernized Mazeikiu Nafta since it took over in 1999. Its losses under Williams management doubled last year to $41 million, reaching significantly beyond those when it was still run by the state. And Williams still has no contract with Yukos.

Lithuania's Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is the safest nuclear facility in the region, Adamkus continued.

Ignalina is an RBMK reactor, the same kind that melted down at Chernobyl, the same design universally considered unsafe by nuclear engineers because of its lack of built-in safety features to keep radioactive fuel rods from interacting at low power.

Did Adamkus temporarily, in the heat of the moment, lose sight of his political constituency back in Lithuania in an effort to push the idea of Lithuanians eating granola, hugging trees and getting back to nature?

Was he actually announcing in his own way he wasn't in the running for president?

That's a strange vision - or maybe just wishful thinking - for a country intent on EU and NATO membership as a panacea to all economic and political ills. Agriculture isn't usually considered a prime sector for economic growth by Lithuanian or European policy makers.

Well, if Adamkus can't return to primeval pristine Lithuanian nature, at least he and his dozen or so advisors and ministers can do some scuba diving on the Mexican coast during their 28-day trip to North America.