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Lithuanians Celebrate NATO Membership, Bush Visit - 2002-11-22

People in Lithuania are celebrating two historic events - their invitation to join NATO and a visit by President Bush.

Lithuanians are savoring their entry into NATO, something few here thought possible during the years of Soviet occupation. The headline of one of Lithuania's leading newspapers, Lithuanian Morning, reads "Historic Justice."

At Lithuania's military headquarters, Brigadier General Valdas Tutkus, says the day the NATO invitation was announced ranks second only to March 11 1990, the day Lithuania voted for independence. "We return back to Europe," he said. "We return back to the secure environment, and we're really, really proud and happy with this. "

Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were all forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. After regaining full independence, they pushed heavily for membership in NATO. That invitation finally came on Thursday, at the NATO summit in Prague. For many people here, President Bush's visit is an added bonus.

Lithuanian officials diplomatically say NATO membership is not designed as protection against any particular country. But many Lithuanians, like Steponas Asmontas, who suffered under the Soviet occupation, say differently. Mr. Asmontas was four-years-old when he was deported with his parents to Siberia. "Young people and people who are against NATO say that Lithuania must be a neutrality," he said. "But we remember from history, between second and first World War, Lithuania was neutral country, but you know that in the 1940 years, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet army and neutrality don't help."

The majority of Lithuanians support NATO membership, but many do not.

Streetsweeper Anton Kisli says NATO membership means more money spent on defense, money he thinks could be better spent elsewhere. This year, Lithuania increased its defense spending to two percent of GDP, in order to meet NATO requirements.

But the majority of Lithuanians appear ready to pay the price, and also to absorb the costs of what could be the country's next step toward western integration - membership in the European Union.