Lithuanian Vote on European Union Membership Uncertain | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 08.05.2003
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Lithuanian Vote on European Union Membership Uncertain

Lithuanian voters will decide whether to join the European Union this weekend. Support for membership is high, but the country may have difficulty getting enough people to the polls.


Vilnius, Lithuania: Voters in the Baltic state will decide whether they want to be in the EU

Around 2.7 million Lithuanians voters will have the chance to decide whether their country should become a member of the European Union on May 10 and 11. Surveys have shown that a stabile majority of more than 60 percent of the population is in favor of joining the EU. But lately opponents to EU membership have been gaining momentum in the largest of the three Baltic states.

Whether on the radio, television or in the newspapers or the Eurobus -- which tours the country with some of the most popular bands on board -- advocates for EU membership campaigners are nearly omnipresent.

The focus has been on getting people to the polls, since at least half of registered voters must cast their ballots for the referendum to be valid. Last winter only 52 percent voted in presidential elections and 59 percent had their say in parliamentary elections. This time the government set two days for voting, just to be safe.

Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's Europe minister, nearly worked around the clock for months to prepare for the referendum, but he was not prepared to tell DW-RADIO his forecast for the outcome. He did say he wished Lithuanians would be more optimistic.

"The Lithuanians tend to see everything negatively. They even consider our Europe campaign to be pure propaganda. Lots of people are totally irrational when the future is the issue. Everything seems dark and bad to them."

While Europe is a dream for much of Lithuania's youth, it's a nightmare for many old people who remember being part of the Soviet Union and don’t see why sovereignty just gotten back from Moscow should be now given to Brussels.

“Thieves, criminals and smugglers”

Julius Veselka, a parliamentarian with the People's Coalition for a Just Lithuania party and a former finance minister, is one of the strongest critics of EU membership. Skillfully playing up the fears of his countrymen, Veselka has been a welcome guest in EU discussions because of his populist rants.

"The current government has privatized, divvied up and lined their pockets with the things our people worked hard to produce over decades," he told DW-RADIO. "The only people who will take part in the referendum will be bureaucrats who will profit from Lithuania's EU membership -- thieves, criminals and smugglers, but no normal people."

Though Veselka has managed to confuse many of his opponents with his rhetoric, many Lithuanians agree with him that EU membership can't mean anything good for their country because the Social Democratic government -- the former Communists -- are working hard for it.

With all of major political parties favoring of joining the EU, many Lithuanians seem focused on other issues. Many small-scale farmers are concerned about subsidies. They think the government only supports large-scale farmers, Vytautas Sunskis, head of the farmers association, told DW-RADIO.

"Without a doubt, we are in favor of Lithuania joining the EU and equal conditions for everyone," Sunskis says. "But the government discriminates against the small-scale farmers with its feudalistic policies, and I'm afraid that thousands will stay home for the referendum to take revenge on the government."

Joining the club

Hungary, Malta and Slovenia have already received approval from their citizens in referenda to join the currently 15-member strong union. Poland will vote on Sunday, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia will go to the polls for EU membership in June.

The ten candidate countries, which also include Cyprus, Estonia and Latvia, are expected to formally join the union in May 2004.

If Lithuania doesn't decide to join the EU, commentators warn it's political and economic future could be bleak, even though the country recently joined NATO. Some of the more pessimistic fear Lithuania will turn into an economic wasteland between the Russian enclave Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Not wanting to take that chance, the Lithuanian government already has another referendum planned for November if this one fails.

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