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Crossing Lithuania

What is the fate of the Lithuanian economy as a new member of the European Union?

September 13, 2003

What is the fate of the Lithuanian economy as a new member of the European Union?

It's compact, friendly, cheap by west European standards, and flat. What more could a touring cyclist ask for? In fact, crossing this West Virginia-sized, soon-to-be European Union country is a cyclist's delight.

I had intended to begin in north central Lithuania at a place called Siaulai (Shau-lay), a modernizing, comfortable town well north of the busy urban corridor near the capital, Vilnius. It was the town I had reached some months earlier on the first stage of my east European ride from Estonia into Lithuania.

I arrived in Lithuania by air — hybrid Cannondale in the luggage — at the coastal town of Klaipeda. The bike was assembled in 20 minutes by very competent, English-speaking kids at a well-stocked shop in the town center.

I started this leg of the journey from a four-lane highway several hours south of Siaulai. I had hitched a ride there from Klaipeda, on a bus headed across to the capital.

It dropped me at the side of the road on a sunny, crisp spring morning, a great day for cycling. I pedaled due north.

The ride to Kelme, the first town, 25 miles away, was uneventful. The only negative was a mild wind from the east. But as Lithuanians like to tell you, there's never a good wind coming out of Russia — and it generally means there is bad weather ahead.

I turned left along the secondary road that I was told was more scenic and remote. As time slowed to the bicycle's pace, the sounds of vehicles gave way to birds and farm animals.

Lithuania is a poor and rural land. While riding, I couldn't help but think that it's a miracle that this little country — so recently part of the Soviet Union — is actually about to achieve European Union and NATO membership. Even five years ago, this seemed an impossible dream.

I suspect the man or woman on the street in France or Germany has no idea of just how poor these rural folks up here are — and how much support they're going to seek from the EU budget.

The average monthly wage in Lithuania is $380. And with prices — except for housing — now nearly at western levels, it's hard to imagine how the Lithuanians are getting by on less than $5,000 a year.

For example, the farmer I watch splitting firewood on his six acre farm — according to Lithuanian statistics — will be earning about $200 per month. A pensioner I encountered — stooped in old age as he surveyed his stock of turkeys, geese and hens — gets about $100 a month in social security benefits.

But lovely Lithuania brings some pluses to the EU. It has arguably the best road network in the former Soviet Union. Klaipeda (called Memel when it was part of Germany) has a well-functioning port.

Nearby is the only oil refinery in the Baltics. It is now Russian-owned, after being controlled for some years by the financially struggling Williams company from Oklahoma.

Lithuania is politically stable, and relations with the Russian minority are free of tension.

Moreover, the pace of farm mechanization is moving quickly. Tractors are common — although I did see a woman planting a two-hectare field by hand. (see attached photo)

Economic growth has exceeded 5% in each of the past three years — that's about four times the EU average. And in 2002, Lithuania registered 6.7% growth — the highest in all of Europe!

I rode about 60 miles the first day, but never reached my intended starting point, Siaulai. The problem was my own lack of foresight.

Because I was intending to spend the night back at the wonderful SAS Radisson Hotel in Klaipeda, I hadn't loaded my full kit onto the bike, so I carried an unbalanced load.

I had foolishly put all my gear into the left front pannier, not knowing that this was going to cause my left leg to work harder. Three hours into the ride I was in pain.

By the time I rectified the problem, it was too late. I couldn't pedal at all with the left leg, and wasted hours pushing the bike. Worse, the slow ride caused me to miss the train that was going to take me back to Klaipeda.

In the end, I got an overnight train to Siaulai. The next day it rained hard. So hard, I wouldn't have been able to ride anyway. Bike in tow, I rode the old East German-built train from Siaulai back to Klaipeda, recovering and waiting for better weather.

Luckily, the best riding and most enjoyable times were still ahead. Not only is Klaipeda a delightful old town with storybook north German houses from the 18th century, but it is also the gateway to the Courland Spit, one of northern Europe's most compelling natural attractions.

The spit is a 60-mile long sand dune, seldom more than a few hundred meters wide, that extends way out into the Baltic Sea. It proceeds southwest from Klaipeda into the Kaliningrad region of Russia.

Because the entire region was a closed military zone during Soviet times, the spit — particularly on the Russian side — is relatively untouched. I encountered numerous elk and wild boars there. And the seaside cottages of fisherman and vacationers from a century ago were charming.

Leaving Klaipeda at midday, I took the free ferry across to the spit and set out for Nida, the only significant village on the only road south towards Kaliningrad.

Thirty-two miles and a few hours later, I reached Nida, which — with its German name of Nidden — was made famous by the author Thomas Mann, who built a summer home there in 1930.

What the locals used to call "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is really quite a spacious, thatched roof, hilltop home that commands a fine view of the interior lagoon. It is now a well-maintained museum.

Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, was a revered figure in Nidden, even though he and his family were there only three summers before going into voluntary exile after Hitler's rise to power.

Mann had warned against the perils of fascism and had deliberately sited his summer home in independent Lithuania. He preferred that to adjacent German East Prussia, to which Nidden had been attached prior to the Versailles peace treaty.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all small, open and relatively flexible economies that are not burdened with large governments.

And here's one more thing about that stunning 6.7% economic growth rate in Lithuania in 2002. My guess is that if the new Europe is going to produce any economic success stories that could rival the East Asian tigers of the 1990s — it's going to happen up here in the Baltics.

While corruption is a problem, it's not as widespread as in many east European countries.

Public spending is not as big a percentage of GDP as in most parts of either east or west Europe.

The three Baltic states have already shifted their trade westwards — and they are benefiting greatly from foreign direct investment, particularly from Germany, Sweden and Finland.

Far from being dispirited or cynical, their populations are enthusiastic about joining the west — and very supportive of governments whose policy makers tend to be young and highly educated.

Against all odds and starting from a very low base, the Baltics are determined to catch up.