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Lithuania: Voters Likely To Approve EU Membership In Weekend Referendum

Lithuanians will go to the polls this Saturday and Sunday to vote on their country's entry into the European Union. Citizens of Hungary, Slovenia, and Malta have already approved their EU membership in referendums. Support for the EU is high in Lithuania, and officials say the only question is whether enough voters will turn out to validate the vote, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuania's 2.6 million voters are due to turn out at weekend polls to vote on whether their country should join the European Union.

Officials and analysts say they are not anticipating any surprises at the two-day referendum, which is expected to see a majority of voters supporting the country's entry into the EU. The referendum needs a 50 percent turnout to be valid. For entry to be approved, 50 percent plus one must vote "yes."

The weekend vote makes Lithuania the fourth of the 10 EU candidate countries to hold a referendum on entry. Hungary, Slovenia, and Malta have all voted in favor of entry. Expansion is due to take place in May 2004.

Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's chief EU negotiator, told RFE/RL the referendum will be the crowning achievement of the country's years of independence.

"I would say that this referendum is historic in the sense that it will consolidate all the achievements Lithuania has made during the last 15 years. It will give them meaning, will legalize them very clearly, and will confirm the fact that our people accept the [accession] treaty. In other words, it will be one more confirmation that people approve of all the work and all the efforts made [to join the EU], which was all done very quickly. I think it is an important and -- without any doubt -- historic event," Austrevicius said

Austrevicius said as Lithuania evolved over the past decade into a democratic country with a functional market economy, the mindset of many Lithuanians underwent a powerful change as well. Now, he said, many people feel in control of their destiny and the fate of their country. This is reinforced not only by their likely entry to the EU, but also by their invitation last year to join NATO.

The Lithuanian official said voting is already underway in Lithuania. People unable to make the trip to the polls this weekend have been able to vote by mail since 29 April. The initial results, Austrevicius said, are encouraging. Some 135,000 people -- nearly a 10th of the voters required to validate the referendum -- mailed their ballots in the first five days.

Algebras Bazookas, the Lithuanian prime minister, was among those to vote by mail. Speaking to reporters after casting what he assured them was a "yes" vote, Bazookas said he was excited by the progress his country has made since it broke free from the Soviet Union. He expressed hope that membership in the Western bloc would bring new economic and personal opportunities for his country and its people.

"I expect a lot from the EU," the Lithuanian prime minister said. "Not for me, but for Lithuania."

This week, Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas went on national television urging voters to say "yes" at the weekend referendum, calling it a vote "not only for our future but also for the future of our children."

The Lithuanian political elite is united on the issue of EU membership, so most Lithuanians could be expected to vote "yes." But Austrevicius says the lack of political opposition is not as beneficial to EU entry as it might seem.

"There are no organized anti-European movements in Lithuania. And I don't think that's good, because it's always useful to have a well-organized movement that puts forward its position with supporting arguments. You can debate the issue with representatives of that movement as equal partners, and eventually it helps citizens have more clarity. On the whole, discussions are useful," Austrevicius says.

Austrevicius adds there are, in fact, several small groups who oppose the EU -- but that their politics are so diverse they cannot unite behind the cause.

In the end, the negotiator says, the biggest threat to the weekend is not Euroskepticism, but apathy. He says many Lithuanians consider the question of EU entry settled and may assume that they can easily skip the vote. Fear of low voter turnout is the main reason the referendum is scheduled to last two days rather than the usual one.

But recent polls (by the Vilmorus polling agency, conducted in the middle of April) suggest such fears may be unfounded. Poll results show some 66 percent of voters supporting EU membership, with just 13 percent saying they are opposed. Roughly 60 percent said they fully intended to vote in the referendum; and an additional 17 percent said they were "likely" to come to the polls.

In the run-up to the referendum, Lithuanian streets and TV screens have been filled with pro-EU advertising. Lauras Bielinis, an analyst from the Lithuanian Institute of International Relations, says the best way to convince Lithuanians of the importance of voting in favor of EU entry is to remind them of their still-recent liberation from another, less felicitous, union.

"People can have different opinions about our future integration into the EU; they can have different opinions on pro-EU advertising. But society has not forgotten anything about [life under the Soviet regime] and they can still easily compare their present lives with what we had 10-15 years ago," Bielinis says.

However, Vytautas Radzvilas, a fellow analyst with the Institute of International Relations, says much of the pro-EU advertising focuses on future material benefits to the exclusion of other, more persuasive, issues.

"[The advertising] is concentrated on very narrow, pragmatic arguments. Paradoxically, these arguments do not convince hard-core skeptics, and they irritate Euro-enthusiasts or those with some doubts -- people who understand the problem more broadly and more responsibly," Radzvilas says.

He says little is being said about the radical change in Lithuania's geopolitical situation, which in addition to windfalls and benefits may bring certain sacrifices along the path toward a more civilized and less corrupt system. Radzvilas says staking all your promises on material benefits and a fairy-tale future can easily lead to disappointment in both the short and long term.

But what if the referendum fails? Bielinis says that would be a defeat, but not a tragedy -- the deputy chairman of the Lithuanian parliament has announced that, if necessary, a second referendum can be held again as early as this fall.