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Latvians Give Resounding 'Yes' to the EU

September 21, 2003|From Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia — Latvians voted overwhelmingly Saturday to join the European Union, but the government was thrown into turmoil when one party bolted the ruling coalition.

Latvia First said it would withdraw from the government's four-party coalition over an unrelated dispute with Prime Minister Einars Repse. The move was not expected to affect the country's entrance into the EU.

With more than 80% of the country's 1,006 polling districts reporting by early today, 69.5% of voters cast "yes" ballots, the Central Election Commission reported.

Repse, wearing a blue EU T-shirt, celebrated the referendum's success before about 2,000 cheering young people at an old town square in the capital, Riga.

"Latvians understand this is a decisive moment," Repse said from a stage below a banner reading, "Welcome Europe!"

"You people will have a big role to play in the EU. Take advantage of it."

Repse appeared unaffected by what appeared to be the collapse of his coalition. Guntars Krasts, from one of the ruling parties, Fatherland and Freedom, said Latvia First pulled out because the party was not happy with Repse's leadership.

Latvia's former Central Bank president, Repse is seen as a financial whiz but also has been criticized as heavy-handed and uncommunicative.

Repse suggested he was willing to continue with just three parties, but left open the possibility that he might try to work out the differences. He wouldn't be forced to leave power, but it would be more difficult to get legislation through Parliament.

Saturday's vote makes Latvia the ninth "candidate" country to approve EU membership in a referendum; the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia have done likewise. A 10th nation, Cyprus, has decided not to hold a vote on membership and will leave it up to legislators.

All 10 countries are expected to formally join in May, expanding the bloc to 25 countries.

Latvia's government and the business community strongly backed EU entry, touting it as a way to ensure the political and economic stability of the Baltic Sea state, which regained independence from Moscow in the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Critics contend that membership would result in higher prices and uncertainty. Latvia is also slated to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization next year.

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