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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 08:58 GMT
Lithuania banks on Nato future
Lenin's statue is removed from Vilnius, 1991
Lithuania has quickly shaken off the Soviet era

The soldier barks a command as he jumps out of a snow-filled ditch and runs several metres across open countryside before diving into another dip in the ground.

He wears a white snow-camouflage jumpsuit pulled over his military fatigues. Tens of other soldiers are following him across this imaginary battlefield.

Lithuania is a small country. It's essential for us to enter into a strong alliance

General Jonas Kronkaitis

For now it's let's pretend. But in a couple of years' time, Lithuanian soldiers could find themselves defending Nato's eastern frontier for real.

The country has been preparing for Nato membership since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and now it looks imminent.

No-one is more pleased at the prospect of joining the alliance than the head of the armed forces, General Jonas Kronkaitis.

'Essential alliance'

He left Lithuania as a child at the end of World War Two and spent most of his military career in the United States. He returned to Lithuania five years ago to take up senior office.

"As you can see, Lithuania is a small country," said General Kronkaitis, pointing at a map on the wall in his office. "It's essential for us to enter into a strong alliance because of our past.

Russian tanks
Russia armour used to be stationed in Lithuania

"The last time we were occupied we lost one-third of our population. We have no enemies today, but you don't know what will happen in the future."

On Lithuania's eastern frontier, border guards look through binoculars over snow-covered fields towards Belarus.

That country is an immediate neighbour of Russia, and is linked to Moscow by a union treaty. Once Lithuania joins Nato, the alliance could in theory bring heavy weapons right up to this border.

So it's easy to understand why the Russians are unhappy about Nato's inexorable advance.

Some 600 km (372 miles) to the east, thousands of old Communists are braving the Moscow cold to commemorate the Bolshevik revolution.

Surveying the sea of red flags emblazoned with hammers and sickles, it's as if you've entered a time warp. But a different revolution is underway in Russia these days.

Russian unease

President Vladimir Putin has made a pragmatic choice to engage with the West and has even secured a formal role for Russia in Nato's decision-making process.

That does not impress the Communists.

"This is just theatre," said Leonid Dobrochotov, a long-standing member of the Communist Party.

"Russia will sit, Russia will speak, but nobody will take it into consideration on the principle military decisions, including the further expansion of this bloc to the east."

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian doubts over enlargement remain

Vladimir Putin seems to be accepting the inevitable: American troops in his back yard in Central Asia, the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and now Nato on his doorstep.

But even members of his own party are questioning what Russia is getting in return.

"We see Nato enlargement as some kind of shrinking of our own economic space," said Andrei Kokoshin, a member of the Russian parliament for the pro-Putin Fatherland Party.

"We know that when Nato arrives somewhere it creates better political conditions for the economic expansion of western multinationals, at the expense of Russian emerging multinationals."

Economic boost

The Lithuanian President, Valdas Adamkus, freely acknowledges that Russian tanks are not about to come rumbling down the streets of Vilnius.

Lithuania is hoping Nato membership will boost its economy

He hopes that Lithuania will share the experience of Poland and the Czech Republic, which joined Nato in 1999.

"Since they became members of Nato, their foreign investments have risen by 50%," he said.

"This is a good indicator that psychological attitudes, a sense of security, are working in favour of investors."

A minority of Lithuanians have criticised the cost of Nato membership, accusing the government of spending on defence at the expense of education, healthcare and social welfare.

But most people here and in Russia realise that standing in the way of Nato enlargement is like trying to turn back the tide of history.

The invitation to new members is signed, sealed and about to be delivered. Resistance is futile.

Expanding Nato

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See also:

16 Oct 02 | Politics
25 Sep 02 | Europe
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