Sprucing up town for Bush, First Lady

  • 2002-11-21
  • Tony Pappa

There is a noticeable hustle and bustle on the streets of downtown Vilnius and in the lobbies of many local hotels.

Advance teams from the U.S. have been preparing for President George W. Bush's visit for several weeks, while the city itself has been on the go for even longer, trying to get things in order for the historic occasion.

While most of what President Bush will do during his two-day long stay is still under wraps, preparations are intense.

Bush has a fairly heavy itinerary slated for the days following the Nov. 20-21 NATO summit in Prague, where Lithuania and the other Baltic nations are expected to receive invitations to join the alliance.

The first stop on his excursion is further east to St. Petersburg, Russia to reassure President Putin.

"I want Russia and President Putin to realize that there are no reasons to fear of NATO enlargement," Bush told the daily Lietuvos Rytas during an interview in the White House earlier this week.

After spinning the outcome of the summit with Putin, Bush will head to Vilnius later on Friday, Nov. 22, where he will spend just one night before jetting off for an even hastier visit in Bucharest with Romanian President Ion Iliescu.

But no matter how short the visit, any visit by a U.S. President entails an inordinate amount of groundwork.

"There is a tremendous amount of preparation for the media and the officials that will accompany the president on the trip," press attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius Michael Boyle said.

"President Bush will be meeting with the presidents Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and there's a lot of anticipation of what might happen. The response by the local media and ordinary citizens has been one of interest and excitement," said Boyle.

Bush's meeting with the three Baltic presidents, Valdas Adamkus, Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Arnold Ruutel should take place Nov. 23 in the morning.

According to Lithuania's presidential press service of the president, Bush is also slated to make a public address at Town Hall Square in Vilnius later that morning. In addition, he may also have the chance to witness one of NATO's new forces in formation.

November 23 is the Lithuanian Army and Public Day marked by the presentation of parading soldiers.

Vilnius Mayor Artûras Zuokas held a press conference Nov. 19 outlining how citizens can participate in the event, as well as what inconveniences might be expected throughout his stay.

Though this is the first visit of a U.S. President to Lithuania, the capital city is an experienced host. Earlier this year Vilnius welcomed former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and before that Prince Charles experienced the hospitality of the quaint city.

One person who is especially anxious about the visit is Lithuanian First Lady Alma Adamkiene, who spent some time with Laura Bush in the White House earlier this year.

"I met them before but it will be an honor to meet them here in Vilnius," she told The Baltic Times. "It will be very exciting but their time here is precious. Every hour is already accounted for."

At their previous meeting, Mrs. Adamkiene extended an invitation to Mrs. Bush to pay a visit to Lithuania. According to Adamkiene, Bush's response was, "I'd love to, but we'll have to talk to our husbands about that."

At a subsequent meeting in September between the two presidents in New York, Adamkus quipped to Bush about "their wives arranging a meeting in Lithuania," according to Adamkiene. Now the engagement seems final.

Despite the gravity of this meeting coming so soon after the NATO summit, press speculation has been light.

One local paper suggested that the recent happenings on Lithuania's reality program 'Aquariumas' and in the beauty pageant for inmates of a women's prison, were of greater interest to the public.

As security tightens later in the week, the impact of President Bush's visit are certain to become more evident. But Vilnius has seen this type of exposure before and, assuming acceptance into NATO, is likely to see it more frequently.

"It's a very big and important step for Lithuania just to be recognized and feel equal with the other countries," said Mrs. Adamkiene. "For so many years we were deprived and not recognized."

She continued, "I have to admit, the U.S. never recognized our occupation. Perhaps that is why we are so thankful to them."

If the rest of Lithuania shares the First Lady's perspective, the Bush's should expect a warm welcome during their brief stay in the country. And in return, Vilnius should expect more Heads of State and senior diplomats to pay it a visit.