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Bush Visits Lithuania - 2002-11-22

The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is hosting President Bush, who flew in Friday evening after the NATO summit, where Lithuania and six other countries were invited to join the alliance. Bush arrived from Russia, where he stopped briefly to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The president and Laura Bush were met at the airport by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, before being whisked into the center of town, where Mr. Bush will stay until midday Saturday.

Lithuanian police and soldiers are stationed throughout the city, and traffic jams, something virtually unheard of in this small Baltic country, have become normal, as streets are closed off for security reasons.

But, while the American president's visit is big news in Vilnius, analysts say it is a mostly symbolic visit that probably won't focus on weighty matters of state.

At one of Lithuania's leading newspapers, journalist Rimyvydas Valatka says the Bush visit is a symbolic way to honor the country for the struggles it went through during the fall of the Soviet Union.

Lithuania, as well as neighboring Baltic States Latvia and Estonia, were forcibly included in the Soviet Union, and only regained their independence a little more than a decade ago. The struggle was particularly bloody in Vilnius, where 14 civilians were killed by Soviet troops in 1991.

Until just a few years ago, the Baltics were a long-shot to make it into NATO, mostly due to resistance from Russia, which objected to bringing NATO's borders so close to its own.

Analysts say it was the United States that made NATO expansion a priority, resulting in Thursday's invitations. At the London-based Royal United Services Institute, Kenneth Payne studies NATO issues.

"These new countries are very much pro-the United States, let's not forget that the NATO accession, accession of these seven countries owes a lot to political pressure coming from the administration in Washington, and indeed, from its predecessor administration. The driving force behind NATO enlargement has been Washington," he said.

The Baltics have also been strong supporters of the U.S.-led war against terrorism, and sent some troops to Afghanistan. But with their small size and limited resources, their contribution has been mostly symbolic.

On Saturday, President Bush will meet with the leaders of all three Baltic states, and will then travel to Romania, another of the formerly communist countries invited to join NATO.