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Native Returns to Lithuania for a Chance at Higher Office

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six months ago, Valdas Adamkus was a high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official in Chicago. He commuted to work every day from the suburb of Hinsdale and worried about things like water quality and toxic waste.

Today, his picture is plastered on kiosks and bus shelters all over Lithuania along with the slogan “Free men, an open society and a strong nation.” At an age when his contemporaries have retired to the golf course, he spends his time shaking hands with farmers and factory workers in this former Soviet republic.

Fifty-five years after leaving his native Lithuania as a teenager, Adamkus is back, and he wants to be president of the small Baltic nation.

“The biggest issue is how to provide normal living conditions,” he said. “Young people say: ‘We don’t have jobs. We don’t have a future.’ Some people are at a starvation level. People are stopping me in the street and crying. You feel like you are almost helpless.”

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Running as the ultimate political outsider, Adamkus--who holds dual Lithuanian and U.S. citizenship--is making a surprisingly strong showing. When Lithuanians cast their ballots Dec. 21, analysts predict, the 71-year-old candidate will win a spot in a presidential runoff.

Like a rich uncle returning from America, Adamkus is receiving a warm welcome from the segment of Lithuanian society most disappointed by the slow pace of the country’s transition from communism to capitalism.

“He lived in America for a long time,” says Rimas Valiunas, 34, an electrician. “He knows how the system works there. I think he will bring democracy from America to us.”

Running in a field of seven candidates, Adamkus is expected to edge out Vytautas Z. Landsbergis, the man who led Lithuania to independence in 1990 and now heads the country’s Parliament. Landsbergis, 65, has a loyal following among older voters who remember how the former music professor stood up against the Soviet Union, but many more have soured on his abilities as an officeholder.

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Adamkus’ main rival in the race is front-runner Arturas Palauskas, a 44-year-old prosecutor whose claim to fame is putting mobsters behind bars. Much of his support comes from small-business owners who have begun to prosper in Lithuania’s emerging market economy.

Adamkus, who retired from his EPA post in June, is one of about 2,000 Lithuanian Americans who have returned to their homeland to work, retire or start businesses. Three Lithuanian Americans serve in Parliament, and two others hold posts as deputy ministers in the government of outgoing President Algirdas Brazauskas.

Moreover, Adamkus is not the only Lithuanian American running for president: Kazys Bobelis, a six-year member of Parliament who moved back shortly after independence, is also on the ballot. Bobelis, 74, who has not made a strong showing in the polls, criticizes Adamkus for not returning sooner.

“Many people think because he came from America he will save Lithuania,” Bobelis says. “But he doesn’t live here. He doesn’t know the issues here.”

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Adamkus faced a court challenge to his candidacy on the grounds that he did not meet the Constitution’s three-year residency requirement. But he argued that the law does not require him to remain in Lithuania 365 days a year, and the court ruled in his favor.

Adamkus, who expects to spend up to $50,000 of his own money on his campaign, points out that he has traveled “countless times” to Lithuania.

“I am not a newcomer here,” he says. “The country recognizes I was with them for the past 25 years continuously. They consider me one of them.”


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