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Baltics: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania Mull Holding Simultaneous Referendums On EU Membership

The parliamentary speakers of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia recently discussed several possible scenarios for referendums on membership in the European Union, including the possibility of holding them simultaneously in all three countries.

Prague, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The chairmen of the parliaments of the three Baltic states met last weekend in the Lithuanian seaside resort of Palanga and pledged to coordinate efforts in organizing referendums on membership in the European Union.

The speaker of the Lithuanian parliament, Arturas Paulauskas, and his Latvian and Estonian counterparts -- Janis Straume and Toom Savi, respectively -- discussed the idea of holding simultaneous EU referendums. They also put forward a proposal to coordinate their efforts with other EU candidate countries, especially with the so-called Visegrad Four -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Romualds Razuks is the chairman of the Baltic Assembly, a joint parliamentary body. He told RFE/RL that the Baltic Assembly supports the concept of simultaneous referendums sometime next year. Razuks says he is a strong supporter of the idea.

"Our common experience in fighting for independence, our experience of cooperation and also my personal experience, being a Latvian of Lithuanian descent, strongly supports the idea to have simultaneous referendums in all three Baltic states. It would be a forceful presentation of Baltic unity and duty and would show strong Baltic cooperation. I have no doubt it would give the best result."

Razuks says the idea has strong support in the Latvian government and parliament but needs to be formally approved.

The deputy chairman of the Lithuanian parliament, Ceslovas Jursenas, told RFE/RL that Lithuania also supports the idea of simultaneous referendums:

"The main advantage [of simultaneous referendums] would be that we (all three Baltic states) will show that we are acting as a united force, trying to accept one joint decision [to join the EU]."

Jursenas insists the move would be more than just a symbolic gesture because the hoped-for result -- EU membership -- is critically important to the future of the Baltics.

Jursenas says nothing has been decided yet and that the Lithuanian parliament will have to debate the issue. He says the discussion will not take place earlier than the beginning of next year.

Estonia appears more skeptical of the idea.

Yuri Kahn is a foreign policy adviser to the speaker of the Estonian parliament, Toom Savi. Kahn told RFE/RL that the chairmen of the three Baltic parliaments had discussed several possible ways to coordinate future referendums:

"First, just to hold referendums at the same day in all these states. [Secondly,] to hold it on different days, but to determine what country should be first, what country should be next and the third. The third way actually is to exchange information with Visegrad countries and to elaborate exact dates within this broader group."

Kahn says the merits of all three proposals must be debated. He says there is plenty of time for such discussions, since the Baltic states plan to hold their EU referendums next year.

Is the idea of Baltic cooperation with the Visegrad countries realistic? Recent developments suggest there are some grounds for optimism.

In August, the presidents of the Visegrad countries discussed how to organize their own referendums on EU membership in a way that would ensure positive results. They suggested holding a referendum first in Hungary, the country whose citizens are most favorably disposed to EU entry, hoping a resounding "yes" vote will encourage wavering voters in other nations.

However, Peter Drulak, an analyst at the Institute of International Relations, a think tank in Prague, tells RFE/RL that he is cautious about such coordination efforts among the Visegrad Four, and even more skeptical about any possible coordination with the Baltic states:

"I don't think it is that necessary. I think that in the Czech Republic, the Czech voters will decide according to how they see their situation and not how Hungarians view the situation. So, though it might help, the main basis for the decision is that they will decide on their own agenda. I wouldn't overestimate the influence or the result of the Hungarian referendum. As for the Baltic states, I think it's the same -- people will look around at what EU membership will bring for them and will not focus that much on the perceived benefits in other countries."

Drulak says that if the referendum in Hungary fails, which he admits is unlikely, it would send a very negative signal to the other states, where support for EU membership is much lower.

Razuks is also skeptical about possible Baltic cooperation with the Visegrad countries. He says the Visegrad group doesn't have interstate bodies such as the Baltic Assembly that would facilitate cooperation on such issues.