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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amazed American Set to Lead Lithuania

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- After decades as a top U.S. bureaucrat, Valdas Adamkus planned a quiet retirement.

Then he made a decision that blew the plans: He ran for president of another country -- and won.

"Could I ever have imagined this happening to me?" Adamkus, 71, said in a recent interview. "Never. Not in my wildest dreams."

In amazement, he swept his hands at the walls of the 14th-century presidential palace -- once occupied by Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon -- that will become hiswhen he is inaugurated Feb. 25.

Adamkus isn't the only one stunned by his story -- the tale of a bold teen-ager who hid in a railroad car to flee the country in 1944, after fighting both the Nazis and the Red Army, then returned for good less than a year ago and won a cliffhanger election.

When he started his campaign, few thought he had a chance. His only previous race, which he lost, was for sanitation trustee in Cook County, Illinois.

Although he was granted Lithuanian citizenship in 1992, the courts repeatedly turned down his bid for the ballot, saying he didn't meet the residency requirement. In October, a court ruled his many trips to Lithuania made him eligible.

Even after the legal victory, many doubted that he could understand Lithuanians' problems after a half-century in the United States.

But others saw an outsider as exactly what Lithuania needed, an antidote to the fractious indigenous politicians whose squabbles have hobbled the country and kept it from developing as fast as its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia.

"He is God's gift to Lithuania. ... I know he can bring Lithuania together," said Romute Gineitiene, a widow sitting on a bench near the palace.

Adamkus is disinclined to put his appeal in such dramatic terms. Instead, he says, his strongest suit is an American-bred ability to patiently hear out different sides of an argument, to ease tensions and then to come to a compromise.

In domestic issues, the Lithuanian president has few formal powers but can act as a sort of political midwife, coaxing the legislature through difficult labor. If Adamkus is as good at compromise as he believes himself to be, it may be a major step forward for Lithuania. The current president, Algirdas Brazauskas, is a former communist and the legislature is dominated by the right -- a situation that has brought political paralysis.

The deadlock can be seen throughout the 65,200-square-kilometer country of 3.5 million people, distinctly shabbier than Latvia and Estonia.

With long involvement in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he is expected to push for cleaning up the ecological messes inflicted during a half-century of Soviet rule.

Fixing such problems is likely to require huge infusions of aid money, and Adamkus can be a stronger influence in that way: The president is the main setter of foreign policy. And keeping good relations with Russia will be a priority.

Since being elected president on Jan. 4, Adamkus has announced he will renounce his American citizenship. But the United States has left an indelible stamp on him.

Like many Americans, he was a fitness buff, swimming most mornings before work. And although he's eight time zones away from Chicago, he still can't forget the Bulls. So he's glad that Lithuanian TV has struck a deal to show NBA highlights.

"I'll be able to follow the progress of the NBA teams, including the Bulls,'' he said. "Thank goodness for that.''