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Latvians Begin Voting on EU Entry

September 20, 2003

RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ Latvians began voting Saturday in the last referendum of the 10 candidate countries seeking membership in the European Union, a decision that could cement the former Soviet republic’s ties to the West.

Voters in the country of 2.4 million people are likely to approve membership, but not by the decisive margins neighboring Estonia and Lithuania did, observers say.

Along with Estonia, Latvia has been pegged as one of the most skeptical candidates for EU membership. Most Latvian opinion polls show voters in favor of membership _ with between 55 and 65 percent of those questioned saying they would vote yes.

``My husband and I voted yes for our grandchildren,″ Mudite Kremere, a Riga doctor, said as she left a polling station. ``Latvia is a small country. We’re not like Norway, which has oil, so we need to be in the European Union.″

More than 50 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last parliamentary election _ 497,000 people _ must participate in order for the results to stand. There are 1.4 million eligible voters and more than enough are expected to cast ballots.

So far the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia have voted through referendums to join the European Union. Of the 10 candidate states, only Cyprus has decided not to hold a vote on membership and will leave it up to legislators.

Latvia’s government and the business community strongly back EU entry, touting it as a way to ensure the political and economic stability in this Baltic Sea state, which regained independence from Moscow barely a decade ago amid the 1991 Soviet collapse.

But critics contend membership will lead to higher prices and uncertainty for the country’s residents.

The pre-referendum campaign has been low-key, with few visible advertisements on streets across the country. On the eve of the vote, some activists handed out balloons emblazoned with blue EU flags in parks around Riga, Latvia’s capital.

EU entry ``means reintegrating into the family of European nations from which Latvia had been cut off by the Iron Curtain and by the Soviet occupation,″ President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told The Associated Press in an interview in Riga.

Other leaders said they didn’t even dare entertain the specter of a no vote.

``Such a vote can bring instability and pessimism for those people who really want to develop our state and region,″ Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis said Tuesday in Finland.

Proponents argue that entry will give Latvia access to lucrative EU markets and that EU development aid will boost living standards. They also say accession will help deflect any future economic or political pressure from Russia.

Latvia is also slated to join NATO next year.

That, combined with being part of the EU, could give the country the upper hand _ for the first time in its history _ in dealing with Russia, said Atis Lejins, head of the Latvian Institute for International Affairs.

Russia ``will have to realize they’ve lost us forever,″ Lejins said. ``We will be part of the bigger EU-Russia relations and, since the EU is bigger and more powerful, it is a different story all of a sudden.″

An array of groups opposed to the EU have struggled to make their case. Posters glued to a street-side board in one Riga neighborhood depicted an EU flag crossed out with a red X, and a slogan underneath that read, ``Don’t be naive, vote against.″

Opponents say Latvia is in danger of trading one heavy-handed, over-centralized union _ the Soviet Union _ for another one _ the European Union. Others say the push to join the EU is driven by wealthy, politically powerful Latvians who stand to benefit.

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