Knock, knock, knockin' on NATO's door

  • 2002-04-11
  • Matt Kovalick
VILNIUS

Fire leapt in the air and rockets burst over the center of the Old Town on the night of April 4. It was not a live demonstration of the Lithuanian armed forces' new Javelin anti-tank system, but instead a pyrotechnics and fireworks display at the climax of NATO Days, a concert sponsored by the Defense Ministry.

The eclectic concert bill featured folk singer Veronika Paviloniene, a military band, rocker Povilas Meskela and pop group Bavarija.

The music in the capital's central Rotuses Square, which came free of charge, was the latest event promoting public awareness about NATO on the 53rd anniversary of its founding.

"I'm here to enjoy the concert and be together with friends," said Simona, an 18-year-old student who said she supported Lithuanian membership in the Brussels-based organization.

A crowd of a few hundred people of all ages danced and sang to the music that lasted about an hour and a half.

But even though the night was happy in tone, this was not a premature celebration of a NATO invitation, which is widely expected at the NATO summit in Prague in November. Despite the positive buzz about Lithuanian membership in the military alliance, the organizers of NATO Days - lasting from April 4 to 5 - feel that public education remains a crucial task, and that it is still important to reach out to unconvinced citizens.

Presently, pro-NATO public opinion hovers at around 60 percent, according to Foreign Ministry statistics.

Before musicians took to the stage, Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius spoke briefly to the teenagers and curious onlookers. Flanked by Parliament Speaker Arturas Paulauskas and Czech Ambassador to Lithuania Petr Voznica, he said that NATO would mean "freedom, security and welfare" for Lithuania - a recurring message throughout NATO Days.

The Foreign and Defense ministries and non-governmental organizations held activities throughout the country. Events ranged from lectures presented by NATO-nation ambassadors in 14 towns, to the premiere of a CD-Rom about NATO at local Internet caf├ęs.

"The regional programs were the primary focus," said Ausra Semeskiene, head of the Foreign Ministry's public relations department. "We want people to be well informed about the possibilities and commitments" of joining NATO.

Unconventional methods were used to promote awareness. Over 250 "NATO Pizzas" with 19 ingredients (representing the 19 NATO members) sold briskly at the Pizza Jazz restaurant in Vilnius.Italian, Dutch, French, Turkish, German, American and Belgian ambassadors traveled with Lithuanian MPs to destinations reaching right across Lithuania, including Ignalina, Druskininikai and Klaipeda.

In each town, the goal was to introduce residents to basic facts about NATO and whip up enthusiasm for membership in locals who might be unexposed to issues of national security.

Other aims were to reach out to minority groups, especially Russians and Poles, and make sure they feel they have a voice in the national debate about joining NATO. Local NGOs also got a chance to organize events for their home towns.

"I was impressed by the students' questions," said U.S. Ambassador John Teft, who spoke at a school in Rokiskis and met with local politicians.

He described a lively and enjoyable debate with the students that lasted almost two hours. "They were prepared with a summary of the arguments for and against NATO," he said.

In coming weeks, NATO supporters in Lithuania will be looking at opinion polls to see if support for NATO membership increases as a result of NATO Days. Combined with ongoing military, social and economic reforms, NATO enthusiasts in Lithuania hope that strong public support will help secure the country's admittance to the NATO club.