When Lithuania made its historic escape from the dying Soviet Empire in 1991, many in the West may have found it hard to distinguish its fate from that of other breakaway republics. But in the diaspora across the seas, thousands of exiles had spent half a century in America waiting to come home, dreaming of a Lithuania in its pre-communist halcyon days. Since then, several hundred families-possibly several thousand people-out of America's 800,000 ethnic Lithuanians have come home to this tiny Baltic nation of 3.7 million people.
In some ways, the invasion of the Yanks has been an exercise in nostalgia, with possibilities for exploitation recognized by Air Lithuania: along with Hermes scarves and bottles of Chivas, passengers can buy copies of The Call of the Ancestors, a CD of Lithuanian folk tunes. In the old town of Vilnius, American-owned restaurants, inns and pubs are springing up-offering not burgers or guacamole, but a folksy ersatz-Lithuanian experience that present-day Lithuanians may not even recognize.
But in a country where the phrase Western leadership is often uttered like a papal blessing, the returned exiles also hold out the chance of a new political and social order: in 1998 Lithuanians elected an American President, Valdas Adamkus, 72, who returned to his homeland in 1997 after nearly 50 years in the U.S. A former regional administrator in Chicago for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Adamkus' new post is largely symbolic, but his campaign promises resonated: he vowed to curb corruption, steer the country westward and restore "moral dignity" to government. And as the nation's neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, hit the fast track to E.U. membership, he is calculating that left-behind Lithuania may at last be ready for a bit of forward movement as well-to bury the ghosts from its Nazi and communist occupation, settle old scores and move westward into the 21st century.
Adamkus appointed an old friend from Chicago, Raimundas Miezelis, as his chief aide and he invited Anna Kondratas, a former high-ranking official in the Bush administration, to help shape Lithuania's social policy. But most startling is his choice of retired U.S. Army Colonel Jonas Kronkaitis for commander of the Lithuanian armed forces. Kronkaitis, who fled Lithuania as a young boy during World War II, served 27 years in the Army, including two years in Vietnam, and went through Ranger training with Colin Powell. But despite those military qualifications, Kronkaitis, whose reform agenda is focused on getting the tiny army up to NATO speed in the next decade or so, does not sit well with some Lithuanians, especially the Soviet-trained members of the elite officer corps and the hard-liners among the reformed communists in the Seimas, the parliament. As a member of the far-left wing put it: "Adamkus won by 14,000 votes ... Is that a mandate to import Americans?" In the case of Kronkaitis they might not have to worry: as a retired U.S. military officer he must obtain permission from the Army and the State Department before he can accept the job.
Despite any controversy, Adamkus continues to believe that importing Americans is the best thing for his country. "You know that when you need experience you can get it," he says. And even some of Adamkus' political rivals agree. Vytautas Landsbergis, the fiery parliament speaker who led the Sajudis movement that won Lithuania's independence, welcomes the Americans. He says they have brought "a feeling of hope" that "helps us overcome the danger of depression ... I have no suspicions of them."
Suspicion, however, does hang in the air. One of Adamkus' goals is to deal with some of the dark corners of Lithuanian history, bringing to justice those who too eagerly aided foreign occupiers-first the Nazis, then the Soviets. In f recent years, the U.S. has deported eight ethnic Lithuanians for alleged war crimes during the Nazi occupation. Two of the most prominent, now in their 90s, are so frail that they may never be tried. But those who served Soviet power are mostly younger and there is a movement to identify and punish them. Last month, the Seimas passed a "lustration" law banning former officers of the Soviet KGB from holding jobs in the judiciary, security forces, diplomatic corps, banks and even in some private sector industries. To many Lithuanians Adamkus, who fought the Soviets as a teenager, is the man to heal his homeland's wounds. He recently set up a commission to study the tangled years of war and occupation for the purpose of clarifying the prosecutors' task. Leading the scholarly investigation is yet another Lithuanian-American, retired professor Julius Smulkstys, late of the University of Indiana, The goal of the commission, says Seimas deputy Emmanuelis Zingeris, is "not to lay blame but to restore justice."
Still, Lithuanians worry more about their future than their past, and so far Adamkus has offered little in the way of much-needed foreign investment. Yet, as the country reorients itself, a sense of realism and relief reigns. "Of course we are not well off," says Zingeris. "But if you look at life 30 km down the road in Belarus, this is paradise." Perhaps. And perhaps the Lithuanians who endured half a century under Soviet rule are ready at last to join their returning kin in rebuilding and reforming their country.