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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mittens, Liquor for NATO Summit

APNATO soldiers showing off new M4 technology with magnifying video cameras and thermal imaging Monday in Riga.
RIGA, Latvia -- Latvia assumes an unusually high profile on the global stage this week as host of the NATO summit -- and the country is seizing the opportunity to showcase its attractions to the world.

Eager to add a Latvian flavor to the biggest event the country has ever hosted, organizers have prepared some 4,500 gift boxes for journalists and dignitaries packed with local delicacies, such as honey-glazed cranberries, lime-tree tea and Black Balsam -- the national alcoholic beverage made from 25 ingredients, including berries and herbs.

Guests at the two-day summit, which opens Tuesday, are also being given hand-knit mittens with traditional patterns to brace against any cold spell sweeping in from the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, Riga city workers have hustled to pave downtown streets, refurbish building facades and throw down a fresh coat of paint along the routes where presidents and prime ministers will be shuttled.

"From a promotional point of view, this summit is unbelievable publicity," said Ojars Kalnins, head of The Latvian Institute, a state-financed promotion agency. "It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Never before has a NATO summit meant so much for a country as it does Latvia, the first former Soviet republic to host a summit of the Cold War foe.

"I remember coming here as a tourist and not being allowed to even leave Riga -- that's how close you were controlled by the secret police," said Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who lived in exile in Canada during the Soviet occupation. "To see us now hosting NATO is extremely gratifying."

Choosing a Baltic capital as a summit venue seems logical. The alliance has a direct role in protecting the Baltics with NATO jets patrolling their airspace. In addition, U.S. President George W. Bush has a soft spot for the region. He visited Riga last year and will be coming to the NATO summit after a quick stop in neighboring Estonia.

Georgia eventually will join NATO, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar said in Riga on Monday.

"We have confirmed our very strong view -- as Latvians and Americans -- that the Membership Action Plan for Georgia should be adopted, and I can further say that we look forward to welcoming Georgia in NATO," Lugar told reporters.

Lugar spoke after a round-table discussion with Georgia's parliamentary speaker, Nino Burdzhanadze, and Latvian Defense Minister Atis Slakteris.

Russia has expressed alarm over plans for Georgia to join NATO.

But Vike-Freiberga made it clear Monday that Moscow had nothing to say about the alliance's expansion.

"Decisions about NATO's enlargement lay entirely and solely in the hands of the member nations. They are the ones who have the say," she said.

One issue promises to dominate the summit: Afghanistan. The 26 NATO leaders all know that the future of their alliance is playing out in the deserts of Kandahar and mountains of Uruzgan rather than in their conference hall on the Baltic Sea. Also at the summit:

Sixteen nations will sign up in Riga to purchase jointly three giant transport planes from Boeing to reduce a long-standing air transport shortage.

Leaders will discuss proposals for a shield against incoming missiles and high-tech surveillance systems.

Leaders will be shown a Bulgarian project to develop lightweight armor for helicopters, a jamming device under development in Estonia to thwart remote-controlled bombs, and a Spanish laser prototype to detect roadside explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.