Lithuanians elect `foreign' president

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The Independent Online
Voters in Lithuania have chosen an elderly American citizen for their president in preference to a local politician nearly half his age.

Final results published yesterday gave victory by the narrowest of margins to Valdas Adamkus, 72, who fled from his annexed Baltic homeland in 1944 and did not return permanently until last year when independence was re- established.

The election of Mr Adamkus, which Russian television claimed was the first case of a foreigner becoming the president of any country, came as a surprise, as he had trailed far behind his opponent, prosecutor-general Arturas Paulauskas, in the first round. Mr Paulauskas, 44, is respected because of his commitment to fighting organised crime, although some are suspicious of him because of his Communist past.

But after the father of Lithuanian independence, Vytautas Landsbergis, threw his weight behind the emigre, voters turned to Mr Adamkus, an ecologist who speaks Lithuanian with a heavy accent. He won 49.9 per cent of the vote compared with 49.3 per cent for Mr Paulauskas.

Mr Adamkus was granted Lithuanian citizenship in 1992 but did not give up his US passport. He said Russia would remain "our main partner in the east, but Lithuania will continue to seek membership in the European Union and Nato". Moscow opposes Nato membership for the Baltic states, with whom the Kremlin has has slowly built up a new relationship since they regained their independence in 1991.

"Perhaps Lithuanians think an American president will be more likely to take them into Nato," said Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the Russian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, "but rather I hope the election of an American will be a compensation for them for not entering Nato."