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Lithuania has become the first former Soviet republic to ask for membership in NATO, surprising its Baltic sister states and alarming its giant neighbor, Russia.

Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas asked to join the Western military alliance in a letter to NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner that was made public Tues-day night.The tiny Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 after a half-century of occupation.

Many people in all three countries view NATO membership as the best guarantee of their independence, as well as a major step toward cultural and economic incorporation in the West.

But the Kremlin quickly expressed its dismay Wednesday, warning that expanding NATO could evoke "a negative reaction in Russian public opinion" and play into the hands of the country's extreme nationalists.

"Democratic Russia" respects the right of independent states to join international organizations, said Russian President Boris Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov.

"At the same time, the haste with which a number of countries including the republic of Lithuania are seeking to become members of the (NATO) military-political alliance cannot but cause anxiety," Kostikov's statement said. "Encouraging this trend would contradict the declared intentions to build relations on principles of trust, partnership and equilibrium."

Officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, said Brazauskas made the formal request to draw attention to Baltic security needs before a Jan. 10-11 NATO summit.

The strong showing of ultranationalists in Russia's parliamentary elections last month has raised fears here of a resurgence of Russian expansionism.

But Poivo Klaar, chief of political section in the Estonian Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press Lithuania's request was not coordinated with the other Baltic states and could be counterproductive.

"This step can only be symbolic and can only have limited practical value," he said. "It may just put NATO in the position of officially rejecting this request, and that is not in our interests."

Other east European countries, led by Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, also are pressing for swift admittance to NATO as full members.