Bush congratulates Baltic invitees

  • 2002-11-28
  • Matt Kovalick

Greeted by a flag-waving crowd of thousands U.S. President George W. Bush flew into Vilnius last weekend to herald the Baltic states' entry to NATO.

"The long night of fear, uncertainty and loneliness is over…Our alliance has made a solemn pledge of protection, and anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America. In the face of aggression, the brave people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will never again stand alone," Bush told a crowd of around 5,000 people in Vilnius' Rotuses Square with giant Lithuanian, U.S., and NATO flags at his back.

Bush's visit came after NATO leaders meeting in Prague invited the three Balts - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania to join the alliance, with formal membership expected to occur in 2004.

The energetic, flag waving crowd responded with chants of "Aciu" (thank you) to which Bush replied, "You're welcome."

The public and official reactions to the address were overwhelmingly positive. Emanuelis Zingeris, former Parliament member and prominent Jewish activist called the speech, "our final liberation."

Rytis Paulauskas, head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's multilateral relations department said Bush's "strong" speech had exceeded his expectations.

With the Baltic presidents standing at his side and the threat of war with Iraq looming Bush continued: "We must be willing to stand in the face of evil, to have the courage to always face danger. The people of the Baltic States have shown these qualities to the world … You have known cruel oppression and withstood it … And because you have paid its cost you know the value of human freedom."

At a news conference later in the day Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said: "2002 marks a turning point in our history. We enter a new era when we don't have to fear for our independence again. This gives us a sort of security that we've never before had."

Bush's mid-morning public address rounded off a 16-hour overnight visit during which he held talks with Adamkus, Vike-Freiberga and Estonia's President Arnold Ruutel.

Presenting Bush with the Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great Adamkus said, "In the eyes of the Lithuanian people, your visit is the clearest expression of America's unwavering commitment to our region."

Bush's Vilnius visit was sandwiched between a short meeting in St.Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a speech to a giant crowd of Romanians in Bucharest's Revolutionary Square.

Adamkus told reporters that at the meeting with Bush Putin had received the news of NATO enlargement "very calmly" and had accepted that a bigger alliance did not create a hostile environment for Russia.

Adamkus said he assured Bush that Lithuania would "stand tall and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S.A. in defense of our fundamental values."

Despite the warm and friendly atmosphere security at the Bush speech was extremely tight, with security personnel searching the audience members and snipers scanning the skies from atop Vilnius' Old Town Hall and the SAS Radisson Hotel.

A small army of Lithuanian police blocked off streets to traffic meanwhile. The president was whisked through the Old Town's streets in a 20-vehicle motorcade that included two limousines, a fleet of Secret Service vehicles, police cars, buses and two ambulances.

Although Bush spent about half of his trip in the confines of his hotel he remarked that he enjoyed the stay, commenting that Vilnius is a "beautiful city with clean streets and buildings," according to Adamkus. Bush added that he was happy that former U.S. presidents had left him the pleasure to be the first American president to visit Lithuania, said Adamkus.

The guest's entourage was so large that it occupied nearly half of Vilnius' hotel space. Some 3,000 hotel rooms were booked during the visit, which helped the industry generate approximately 1.7 million litas (490,000 euros) in revenue, according to the business newspaper Verslo Zinios.

Most of Bush's entourage of nearly 800 people spent the night in the Old Town and the surrounding area. Most of the rooms were booked at the Radisson SAS Astorija, Narutis, Centrum and Holiday Inn Vilnius.

As expected, the visit did not go without protest. Anti-U.S. and anti-NATO slogans appeared on walls throughout the city.

Police arrested four people Nov. 21 as they tried to stick up posters reading, "We do not want NATO and Bush."

Similar slogans were sprayed on walls not far from Adamkus' residence.