U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled to visit Lithuania to meet Baltic leaders after NATO's November summit in Prague in the clearest sign yet that the three former Soviet republics will be invited to join the alliance.
Bush is expected to arrive in Lithuania immediately after the summit ends Nov. 22 and to stay until the following afternoon. It would be the American president's first visit to Lithuania, according to Lithuanian officials.
But Michael Boyle, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, would not be pinned down on dates, only confirming Bush's plans to come to Vilnius.
"We do not have official confirmation yet, but we are still preparing for the visit after the Prague summit of NATO," said Boyle.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is also expected to travel to Vilnius to meet with Bush, a spokeswoman said.
"She is planning to go," said Aiva Rozenberga. "It's very symbolic for the Baltic states."
The United States is expected in early November to publicly announce support for seven NATO aspirants: the three Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria.
Although invitations must be ratified by parliaments in all 19 NATO countries, the United States is the alliance's powerhouse and a favorable U.S. stance would all but guarantee membership for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said the three Baltic countries were "serious" candidates to join NATO.
Russia has been vehemently opposed to Baltic membership in NATO, saying it would view expansion of its former Cold War foe to its borders as a threat.
But while Russian President Vladimir Putin has toned down his opposition, saying the three countries have the right to choose their own security arrangements, Moscow still says it considers the move a mistake.
"A hasty decision on the question of enlargement would have as a consequence the NATO membership of a number of countries with a series of problems directly affecting Russian national interests," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Gusarov said last month.
Putin said last week he had declined a Czech invitation to attend the Prague summit, saying Foreing Minister Igor Ivanov would represent Russia.
Rozenberga said the Bush visit confirmed the Baltic states' move toward the West.
"We still remember very sincerely the visits of the previous president - Mr. Clinton in the mid-1990s. That was a sign that the Baltic states were committed to again being in the Western world," she said. "This meeting in Vilnius will be the end of this process when Europe will be united again in security matters, and that's very significant."