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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lithuanians Choose Emigre for President

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- In the half-century since he fled from the brutal Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus won success in the United States. But a bigger victory came to him Monday, when he won the presidency of his homeland.

Since leaving in 1944, Adamkus had lost much of his native accent, which made many Lithuanians suspicious of him as he ran for president in what some viewed as an awkward campaign.

Doubters also questioned how well he understood the country, having moved back permanently only last year. He had to fight a lengthy court battle even to be allowed on the ballot.

Such doubts were among the factors that made the election a cliffhanger. Adamkus beat his opponent, former Prosecutor General Arturas Paulauskas, by less than 1 percentage point.

Adamkus, 71, fled to Germany with family during World War II. He returned several months later to fight against the hated Red Army, but was forced to flee again.

In Germany, he studied at Munich University before his family moved to the United States in 1949. There, he worked in a car-parts factory and as a draftsman in Chicago before getting an engineering degree from the University of Illinois in 1960.

In subsequent years, he moved up the career ladder and eventually became a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, retiring in 1996.

But while he was living the immigrant's American dream of success, he never stopped dreaming of Lithuania and kept up close contacts with the country. He helped coordinate U.S. environmental aid to the Baltic states and arranged visits of Lithuanian academics to America.

During those years, he frequently traveled to Lithuania and became known and admired for his American can-do image. After Lithuania achieved independence in 1991, Adamkus quickly reached for opportunities and was granted Lithuanian citizenship in 1992 even though he continued to live in the Chicago area. He retains his American citizenship, though he pledged during his campaign to renounce it if he won the election.

Once he began seeking the presidency, his image among Lithuanians tarnished a bit. Many voters saw him as an outsider, and he was hampered by a campaign platform that had little to distinguish him from Paulauskas. Both were strong supporters of reform and increasing ties with West, including membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Association, a bid sternly opposed by Moscow.

"Russia will remain our main partner in the East, but Lithuania will continue to actively seek membership in the European Union and NATO," Adamkus said at a news conference after his victory.

In the first round of balloting, Adamkus placed a distant second among seven candidates, but Paulauskas's 45 percent tally wasn't enough for outright victory.

But in the runoff, the losers in the first round generally threw their support to Adamkus.

The results from Sunday's voting showed Adamkus with 49.9 percent of the vote and Paulauskas 49.3 percent -- a difference of about 11,000 votes -- with the remainder of the ballots spoiled or unmarked, according to the central election commission.

Paulauskas, at 44, was popular with younger voters and was widely admired for his efforts against the organized crime that has sprung up since independence.

One factor that may have pushed Adamkus to victory was the support of Vytautas Landsbergis, the parliament speaker who finished third in the first round.

Despite his low placing in the presidential contest, Landsbergis carries considerable authority as the leader of Lithuania's independence movement from the old Soviet Union.

Adamkus also was attractive to many because of his experience with environmental issues, a strong concern in Lithuania. The tiny Baltic state is home to the controversial Ignalina nuclear power plant and has been struggling to overcome the environmental damage inflicted during 50 years of Soviet rule.

Adamkus is to be inaugurated on Feb. 25, replacing Algirdas Brazauskas, who did not run for re-election.