NATO boosters out to educate voters

  • 2002-08-15
  • Matt Kovalick, VILNIUS
A big green jeep has spent the past month rolling into far-flung Latvian towns bearing a simple message: NATO means happiness and security.

The NATO Road Show, organized by the Latvian Atlantic Treaty Organization, or LATO, a non-government NATO booster, canvassed the country from North Kurzeme to Limbazi to Ludza to answer questions and hand out literature about the defense alliance and why Latvia must join.

"There is no better way to reach people than this…we have covered more than thirty towns," said Oskars Ceris, the project manager.

Similar gimmicks backed by pro-NATO non-government groups in Lithuania and Estonia are also hard at work. In the Lithuanian resort of Palanga, beach goers received complimentary NATO-themed puzzles while Tallinners were treated recently to a rock concert in support of joining NATO.

All three Baltic countries are hoping to win invitations to the alliance when NATO gathers in Prague in November for a major summit.

Web sites, television commercials and public seminars are other methods the groups have used to boost public understanding of foreign policy.

LATO and its sister groups in Lithuania and Estonia have organized dozens of projects, each focusing on a different audience.

"I think we have visited 20 regions in half a year and have spoken to several thousand Lithuanians," said Aurimas Perednis, chairman of the Lithuanian Atlantic Treaty Alliance. "Two of our most successful initiatives have been a series of seminars for secondary school teachers and students as well as opening a NATO Resource Center at the national library in Vilnius."

According to LATA, such projects aim to inform those people who help shape local opinion, such as teachers, with correct facts and materials, so they in turn can present the information to others.

Some say the activity is a hopeful sign of increased participation in the political process.

"There was no necessity for NGOs during the Soviet times. Now, NGOs in Lithuania, much like political parties, are making steps to take a greater part in economic and political life," said Petras Zapolskas, director of the information and cultural department of the Foreign Ministry.

Unlike the ministries, NGOs have more flexibility to be creative. Most members are "young and have lots of ideas," said Zapolskas.

The NATO NGOs do apply and receive funding from government ministries, but they also have found patrons. Local embassies, NATO support groups from abroad and individuals, such as a group of Latvian NATO enthusiasts called the Gold Members, who donate money to LATO and benefit from the tax deduction, all assist the NGOs to carry out their initiatives.

Active members tend to be university students in their 20s interested in international relations. And most of them have done fairly well keeping public opinion favorable to NATO. The latest survey in Lithuania found 68 percent of respondents in favor of joining. In Latvia, the number is 63 percent, in Estonia it exceeds 60 percent.

"Support for NATO is clear and stable in the 60 percent range while support for the European Union goes up and down," said Jorgen Siil, secretary general of the Estonian Atlantic Treaty Associa-tion.

Some say those numbers will increase as the Prague summit draws nearer.

"NGOs are an important source of information and are usually more trusted than government sources," said Aurimas Zabulis, president of Youth for Euro-Atlantic Integration.

Zabulis' group, known as JUNEO, has launched a Web site and produced radio broadcasts on Vilnius' Polish-language Znad Wilii station that specifically targeted the Polish minority and have plastered pro-NATO posters at bus stops and train stations around the country.

"The great advantage," says Cersis, mastermind of Latvia's NATO Road Show, "is the curiosity inspired in most residents. The jeep is quite impressive and it's not something they are used to seeing."

The spectacle leads to publicity - most of it positive, he says - in local newspapers and a new understanding of what NATO does.

High public support, Baltic NGOs say, will also help convince NATO that inviting these countries is the right thing to do.