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Derek Scally "Lithuanian leader sees Ireland as EU model", Irish Times


President Adamkus of Lithuania is due to arrive in Ireland today for a three-day visit. Derek Scally reports on the president's ambitions to see his country join the European Union
There is an air of controlled chaos in the residence of the Lithuanian president, Mr Valdas Adamkus.
Butlers whisk away trays of uneaten cheese on sticks and cold cups of coffee, the remnants of a recent reception.
President Adamkus, who begins a three-day state visit to Ireland today, is a busy man with a full schedule.
Far from just being a figurehead, he is also commander of the armed forces and head of major foreign policy.
Since taking office in 1998, he has guided the continuing reform of the country from former Soviet republic to prospective EU member-state.
Mr Adamkus sees European Union membership as a natural continuation of the momentous events of 1990, when Lithuania became the first Soviet to declare, or rather restate, its independence.
"The country unanimously expressed its will for the future 10 years ago," he says. Now the country wants to express its will again, to become what he calls "a fully-fledged member of European society".
Moscow refused to recognise the 1990 declaration of independence and in January 1991 attempted to overthrow the country's opposition-controlled Supreme Council, while world attention was on the Gulf War.
It was only after the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 that most countries recognised Lithuanian independence, and it was another two years before the last Russian soldiers left.
The republic's constitution of 1992 established a semi-parliamentary republic with a one-chamber parliament, the Seimas, a directly-elected president and a 15-member government.
The centre-right coalition government that emerged after last year's elections dissolved last June after eight months of in-fighting. The new Prime Minister, Mr Algirdas Brazauskas, a social democrat and former president, has promised that while the government might have changed the top priorities have not: accession to NATO and the EU.
Today, it is the prospect of EU membership that is driving forward the reform process. President Adamkus says the challenge of meeting EU membership criteria has acted as both a framework and a catalyst for reform. Reforms in the law, banking and energy sectors as well as privatisation have all been driven by the prospect of EU membership, he says.
"In the 10 years from ground zero we have made such progress that, given the opportunity for free trade with the rest of Europe, we will, in a short period of time, be a contributor and a beneficiary," he said.
Lithuania has long looked to Ireland, another small country on the edge of Europe, as an example of what EU membership can bring.
"Ireland is an outstanding example of what can be achieved in a short period of time . . . we take our optimistic outlook from there," said Mr Adamkus. Over 50 per cent of Lithuanians support joining the European Union, according to a recent poll and nothing can "kill the desire" to be a part of Europe. Not even Ireland's rejection of the Nice Treaty earlier this year.
"I don't consider it a negative development. The people expressed their reservations and that was their free expression," he said. "If we believe in the democratic process we have to believe in whatever decision the majority express - that's the democratic way."
His optimism is shared by Mr Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's chief EU Accession negotiator.
"It will not make any difference to our plans," he says of the outcome of the Irish referendum, though he hopes that "the next time the Irish Government will be more committed". Although Lithuania started accession negotiations two years later than the six "first wave" candidate countries, it has put the EU's "catch-up" principle into practice.
In 18 months, Lithuania has already closed 18 of the 31 chapters of the Acquis Communitaire, the 80,000 pages of EU laws that must be adopted before joining the EU.
The country's rapid progress means it has overtaken Poland, with 17 chapters closed, and is now just behind the Czech Republic and Hungary. Closing chapters is only one part of the accession process, but considering Lithuania's progress so far, Mr Austrevicius says it wouldn't be "overly optimistic" to see Lithuania joining the first wave of enlargement.
"This is a political reality on which we have based our strategy for the last three years. We've been delivering this message for years: end negotiations in 2002 and join by 2004," he said.
One spanner in the works for Lithuania, and other candidate countries, has been the demand from Germany and Austria for a seven-year transition period on the free movement of labour.
"We don't like this non-communitarian approach - it sends bad political signals. But you have to be careful not to overcriticise the EU position," said Mr Austrevicius. "Member countries should make up their own policy on these matters; that would be helpful," he added.
Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and others, have already done this, announcing free movement of labour from the date of accession, without any transition period.
As part of his visit, President Adamkus is heading a trade delegation aimed at attracting foreign investment and increasing awareness of the Lithuanian market. The Irish market is worth only a quarter of its $40 million value five years ago although Lithuania's EU export market overall is growing and is now the destination of over 40 per cent of total exports. GDP grew by over 5 per cent in the first half of this year and unemployment is on its way down from a five-year high of 11 per cent last year.
The Lithuanian currency, the Lita, has been stable since it was pegged to the US dollar at a fixed rate of 4:1 in 1994. Next February, however, the central bank will re-peg the currency to the euro, which it hopes will be seen as another expression of positive EU sentiment.
There is also positive sentiment towards Ireland on the streets of the picturesque capital, Vilnius.
"Everyone always says look to Ireland and we do," says one businessman on his lunch break. As the Lithuanian national puts it: "Let your sons draw their strength from our past experience."


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