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Lithuania - Introduction

Forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union fifty-one years earlier, the Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--regained independence in 1991 after an abortive coup in Moscow that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet regime. Having been, in the words of former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, "stolen or kidnapped from the European family," these nations embarked on a course of political and economic restructuring and reintegration with the West. Their experience with independent statehood and, to a lesser extent, with democracy in the 1920s and 1930s (an advantage not enjoyed by the other former Soviet republics), as well as their ability to maintain a strong sense of national identity under foreign hegemony, has helped them in their efforts to deal with the legacies of Soviet rule. The challenges, nonetheless, remain formidable.

Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic States. The geographical centre of Europe is said to be near Bernotai, 15 miles north of Vilnius. The landscape is diverse, consisting of gently rolling plains and extensive forests. There are over 2800 lakes and 750 rivers. The highest point is Juozapine Hill (294m) in the south-east of the country. The Baltic coastline and ports (main port Klaipeda) are generally ice-free in winter. Lithuania's northern neighbor is Latvia. The two countries share a border that extends 453 kilometers. Lithuania's eastern border with Belarus is longer, stretching 502 kilometers. The border with Poland on the south is relatively short, only ninety-one kilometers, but is very busy because of international traffic. Lithuania also has a 227-kilometer border with Russia. Russian territory adjacent to Lithuania is Kaliningrad Oblast, which is the northern part of the former German East Prussia, including the city of Kaliningrad. Finally, Lithuania has 108 kilometers of Baltic seashore with an ice-free harbor at Klaipeda. The Baltic coast offers sandy beaches and pine forests and attracts thousands of vacationers.

Lithuania lies at the edge of the East European Plain. Its landscape was shaped by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. Lithuania's terrain is an alternation of moderate lowlands and highlands.The highest elevation is 297 meters above sea level, found in the eastern part of the republic and separated from the uplands of the western region of Zemaiciai by the very fertile plains of the southwestern and central regions. The landscape is punctuated by 2,833 lakes larger than one hectare and an additional 1,600 ponds smaller than one hectare. The majority of the lakes are found in the eastern part of the country. Lithuania also has 758 rivers longer than ten kilometers. The largest river is the Nemunas (total length 917 kilometers), which originates in Belarus. The other larger waterways are the Neris (510 kilometers), Venta (346 kilometers), and Sesupe (298 kilometers) rivers. However, only 600 kilometers of Lithuania's rivers are navigable.

The country's climate, which ranges between maritime and continental, is relatively mild. Average temperatures on the coast are 1.6C in January and 17.8C in July. In Vilnius the average temperatures are 2.1C in January and 18.1C in July. Average annual precipitation is 717 millimeters on the coast and 490 millimeters in the eastern part of the country. The growing season lasts 202 days in the western part of the country and 169 days in the eastern part. Once a heavily forested land, Lithuania's territory today consists of only 28 percent woodlands--mainly pine, spruce, and birch forests. Ash and oak are very scarce. The forests are rich in mushrooms and berries.

Concerned with environmental deterioration, Lithuanian governments have created several national parks and reservations. The country's flora and fauna have suffered, however, from an almost fanatical drainage of land for agricultural use. Environmental problems of a different nature were created by the development of environmentally unsafe industries, including the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which still operates two reactors similar to those at Chornobyl' (Chernobyl' in Russian), and the chemical and other industries that pollute the air and empty wastes into rivers and lakes. According to calculations by experts, about one-third of Lithuanian territory is covered by polluted air at any given time.

Problems exist mainly in the cities, such as Vilnius, Kaunas, Jonava, Mazeikiai, Elektrenai, and Naujoji Akmene--the sites of fertilizer and other chemical plants, an oil refinery, power station, and a cement factory. Water quality also is poor. The city of Kaunas, with a population of more than 400,000, still has no water purification plant. Only one-quarter of sewage-contaminated water in the republic is processed because cleaning facilities are not yet available. River and lake pollution also is a legacy of Soviet carelessness with the environment. The Kursiu Marios (Courland Lagoon), for example, separated from the Baltic Sea by a strip of high dunes and pine forests, is about 85 percent contaminated. Beaches in the Baltic resorts, such as the well-known vacation area of Palanga, are frequently closed for swimming because of contamination. Forests affected by acid rain are found in the vicinity of Jonava, Mazeikiai, and Elektrenai, which are the chemical, oil, and power-generation centers.





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