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U.S. recognition elates Md. Baltic community THE SOVIET CRISIS


Gintaras Buivys has always considered himself to be a Lithuanian citizen, even though U.S. immigration records officially list him as "stateless." Now, that designation may be about to change.

Mr. Buivys, a 41-year-old engineering technician who lives in Canton, was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, the son of a Lithuanian couple who fled their country after it was annexed by the Soviet Union. He came to the United States with his parents when he was 7 months old but never became a U.S. citizen.

"I never opted to take U.S. citizenship which was offered me because I always hoped this day might come," Mr. Buivys said yesterday as he joined several hundred other Baltimore-area Lithuanians who celebrated the long-awaited U.S. recognition of their homeland as an official member of the family of nations.

"I feel like there is going to be an opportunity to return home now," he said. "I think my parents' journey, which began when they left Lithuania, is about to end."

But along with the joy was a measure of frustration that it had taken so long -- not only for Lithuania, but for the two other Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia. President Bush announced yesterday that the United States is prepared to establish diplomatic relations with the three countries, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Len Latkovski, a Latvian who is a professor of history at Hood College in Frederick, came to this country in 1950 and has visited his homeland annually since 1985.

A member of the American Latvian Catholic Association and the Latgalian Research Institute, Mr. Latkovski said he was "very happy with the U.S. recognition, but it was belated."

"I don't think President Bush had any other choice," Mr. Latkovski said. "If he waited, Congress would have given him trouble for it. Recognition is important, but after Europe and Japan acted, it was just a matter of time for the U.S. It was not a bold move."

The Latvian community in Maryland is relatively small, but there are an estimated 2,000 Estonians in the state and about 20,000 people of Lithuanian descent in the Baltimore area.

"President Bush's announcement was terribly long in coming, but it is a welcome development," said Ago Ambre, 61, an immigrant from Estonia who lives in Silver Spring.

"Now, the real work of nation-building starts," said Mr. Ambre, who founded the Estonian American Fund Inc., which has sent textbooks and medical supplies to Estonia. Mr. Ambre said Marylanders of Estonian descent will celebrate the event Saturday at Estonian House in Baltimore.

For Maryland's Lithuanian community, the time to party was last night -- and that, for some, came three days late. The celebration at Lithuanian Hall in the 800 block of Hollins Street had been scheduled for Friday night in anticipation of a statement from the president then. But the announcement did not come, and the partygoers left disappointed.

Last night, the hall was draped in yellow, green and red, the Lithuanian national colors, and a sign read: "Free at Last." Those who came ate and sang Lithuanian songs while discussing what had happened and what might lie ahead.

"It is about time that the president acted," said Onile Sestokas, a Catonsville resident and physician who is chairwoman of the Free Lithuania Committee. "I am concerned that it took so long for the U.S. to act and I was disappointed we were the last to do so. But, it is the frosting on the cake, and U.S. recognition provides a measure of security against those forces that might want to undermine Lithuania's democracy."

For the past 16 months, Dr. Sestokas has devoted virtually all her free time to lobbying and cajoling the U.S. government to recognize Lithuania. Now, she says, the Free Lithuania Committee is ready to take on a new role.

"We now have to plan ahead to help Lithuania become a strong pluralistic nation with a free market economy," she said.

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