Valdas Adamkus, Lithuania's genial 72-year-old president, is one of the more unlikely political success stories of the former Soviet Union.
A US career bureaucrat for 27 years, he was still living in America until a few months before he won an unexpected victory in the country's presidential elections late last year. He remained a US citizen almost until the day he took office. Since then, he has defied predictions that as a returning ex-patriate he might flounder in the swamps of day-to-day politics - his popularity has grown from the day he was inaugurated and is now running at 80 per cent in opinion polls. He is comfortable in a presidential palace which has hosted Polish kings, Russian czars and Napoleon.
Lithuanians acknowledge that he is succeeding in the main challenge that he set himself - to act as a bridge between political parties. He is also winning recognition from diplomats for his skill in presenting Lithuania's case in Washington and other western capitals.
Mr. Adamkus has managed to project himself as a man of the future, even though he is older than Vytautas Landsbergis, the country's legendary independence leader, or most other leading politicians, including Gediminas Vagnorius, the 41-year-old prime minister. As one diplomat says: "Adamkus is a new force even though he is in his 70s."
Mr. Adamkus says youth is the answer to the country's greatest challenge - overcoming the effects of 50 years of communism on people's thinking.
"It would be foolish to deny that the Soviet mentality continues to exist. But my hope is based not on the present but on the future. The young generation, in my short experience, is willing and is looking for a new way."
He admits that this is hard on older Lithuanians, including not just pensioners but working people in their 40s and 50s bringing up children. "But what else can you do? The country cannot isolate itself from progress." Recalling the misery of communist times, he adds: "The realities of life can be much harsher than this."
He bristles at the suggestion that, living in the US for most of his life, he was cut off from the realities of communism. Born in Lithuania, Mr. Adamkus fought in the war-time resistance before escaping to the US, where he combined an active role in the Lithuanian-American community with a career in government, culminating in a senior post at the environmental protection agency.
As head of a US-Soviet environmental panel, he visited the Soviet Union regularly during the 1970s and 1980s, adding private trips to Lithuania to his official missions. "I was here for the past 25 years. Year after year, for a week or two. I was here at the worst of times. I heard things and saw many people standing in line for a loaf of bread. For somebody to tell me that I don't understand the conditions, that I don't understand the sufferings, that's not true."
But the years in a western democracy and market economy have given Mr. Adamkus a clear vision of the direction which he believes Lithuania most follow. "Growing up in a western democracy you have a different outlook. Here it was a closed society. A regimented society. My experience helps me when we have to deal with building a market enterprise economy."
For Mr. Adamkus, as for almost every Lithuanian politician, the most important aim is membership of western economic and political structures. As far as the EU is concerned, he is sanguine about the recent progress report of the European commission which suggested that Latvia might be invited to join accession talks next year but made no such comment about Lithuania.
Mr. Adamkus says Lithuania will "probably" be issued with an invitation next year and will be ready to join the union with the first wave of eastern and central European states in "five to seven years." He acknowledges there are disagreements with the EU over the Ignalina, Chernobyl-type, nuclear power plant. But he says there is no ultimatum from the EU demanding an immediate closure. With the plant supplying more than 80 per cent of Lithuania's electric power that would be "national suicide".
As for Nato membership, Mr. Adamkus accepts that it might take 7-10 years but is worth pursuing. Nato may not be able to "defend" Lithuania in the literal military sense but it could "protect" the country in the same way as Berlin was "protected" during the airlift, says Mr. Adamkus, echoing the view of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser.
If Mr. Adamkus is afraid of Russia, he does not show it. "I recognise that Russia is going through the worst period," he says. There is "economic chaos" and there are political troubles. "The political situation will settle down in the next couple of years. The economy will take longer but they will pull through The west will help. They cannot afford to walk away from all that investment."
Mr. Adamkus smiles when he describes how he divides his time between state ceremonials, administration and discussion meetings. He leaves a little time for himself - swimming in the early morning and reading at night. He is currently engrossed in George Bush's memoirs. Seeing, perhaps, what one president might learn from another.