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Lithuanians Approve Entry Into EU

Early returns show 90% support in a referendum that may boost plans for expansion in the region.

May 12, 2003|David Holley and Ela Kasprzycka | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Voters in Lithuania this weekend approved the former Soviet republic's entry into the European Union, adding to momentum for a planned 10-state expansion of the group next year.

With polls showing strong sentiment for the European Union in the Baltic state, supporters of membership had been primarily worried about a requirement that in order for the two-day referendum to be valid, a majority of eligible voters had to cast ballots. After a low turnout Saturday that frightened some EU supporters into making greater efforts to get to the polls, that threshold was easily passed Sunday.

"I am really proud of the historic step the Lithuanian people have taken," Prime Minister Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas said. "Now I can say with a certain inner confidence that everything will be OK for Lithuania."

Lawmakers in Vilnius, the capital, celebrated with a champagne reception at Parliament.

Election officials said that 64% of the nation's 2.7 million registered voters had cast ballots. With 38% of the vote counted early today, support was running at 90%.

Opinion polls had shown about two-thirds support for EU entry, with only about 13% of Lithuanians opposed. It was expected that some opponents would boycott the vote, because the most likely way for EU entry to fail was through the turnout requirement.

Lithuania was the fourth EU invitee, and first former Soviet republic, to hold a referendum on joining the union. Hungary, Slovenia and Malta approved entry this year.

Approval by Lithuanian voters has been regarded as especially important to EU supporters in neighboring Poland and in Slovakia. In both countries, polls show a solid majority favor entry, but similar 50% turnout requirements for referendums could block approval.

"What happened in Lithuania today might have a positive impact on the Polish EU vote June 7-8," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former defense minister now with the Center for International Relations, a Warsaw think tank. "It's yet another signal that if we decided not to enter the European Union, we would be left all alone in this part of Europe. It should serve as an incentive to all Poles to go and vote."

The Lithuanian vote also provides an important boost for pro-EU forces ahead of September votes in the neighboring Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia. Cyprus and the Czech Republic round out the invitees for the planned expansion in May.

After a hard-fought battle with anti-EU lawmakers, the lower house of Poland's parliament approved a change in election rules Saturday to allow the publication of voter turnout at the end of the first day of voting, hoping that will encourage more people to take part in their referendum. Approval of that measure by the upper house, which has a strong pro-EU majority, and by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who has said he favors the change, is considered certain.

"We have to worry about how many people go and vote because Poland has a tradition during all elections of a very low turnout," Onyszkiewicz said. "Even highly personalized elections such as presidential ones attract little more than 50% of the voters.... Let's hope that the two-day referendum, with the announcement of voter turnout, might produce a similar result to the one in Lithuania."

Polls in Poland show support for EU entry at about 60%.

Were Poland, which has the largest population of the 10 applicant countries, to elect to stay out of the European Union, it would "remain a passive observer of what will be happening on the European continent," Onyszkiewicz said. "Decisions made by the EU will have a great impact on the Polish economy because over 70% of our exports go to EU countries. So like it or not, we would have to adjust to EU decisions while at the same time not having any influence over them.... We would also lose the chance to catch up to the more developed European countries."

In Slovakia, a recent editorial in the Slovak Spectator mentioned that country's 50% turnout requirement and how it means opponents' best hope lies in boycotting the vote.

"The worrying fact for EU enthusiasts is that not one of Slovakia's four referendums so far has ever passed that barrier," the paper said. "This leads to a strange phenomenon reminiscent of Soviet-era elections -- there is only one vote worth casting, and that is a 'yes' vote."

The majority of applicant countries are former Communist states, and in these countries, most EU backers see entry as a final seal of approval confirming their return to the European mainstream.


Holley reported from Moscow and Kasprzycka from Warsaw.

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