Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Latvians go to the polls to decide European future

POSITIVE A `Yes' vote is expected, but the Baltic state is one of the least pro-EU regions in the European bloc because of post-Soviet feeling

REUTERS , RIGA

Latvians voted on EU entry yesterday, with supporters expected to win the day despite some grassroots grumbles in the final referendum of the bloc's historic enlargement.

"I vote for Latvia in Europe," President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said as she cast her ballot in the capital Riga. "If I were a betting woman, I'd say 60 percent in favour."

Latvia is the last of 10 countries to decide whether to join the 15-nation European Union. A "Yes" would mark a success for the EU enlargement, while a "No" would leave small Latvia an awkward Baltic outsider.

Many Latvians distrust the EU just as they did the Soviet Union, and regard Brussels as too remote to care for the interests of a nation of just 2.3 million people.

"I voted against, otherwise we'll lose our sovereignty," said policeman Andris, echoing the "No" campaign's key argument.

Others are suspicious of the political and economic elite's desire to enter the EU, having seen little benefits from a Baltic boom which saw Latvia's economy soar 6.1 percent last year, and may use the vote as a protest against the pro-EU coalition.

Ethnicity remains a sensitive issue in Latvia as almost one-third of the population are Russians who came to live there in the Soviet era, and analysts say they may not be enthusiastic about EU entry as it would distance them further from Russia. They would also need visas to travel and work inside the EU.

But most will be prevented from voting as they do not have Latvian citizenship.

Supporters say joining the EU will lead Latvia into the European mainstream and secure freedom, democracy and economic growth after more than a decade of painful reforms since regaining independence in 1991.

Polls show just over half the voters plan to support EU entry, with the "No" camp trailing at about 25 percent.

Turnout is seen above 80 percent, way higher than a 50 percent requirement based on participation in a general election last year, translating into a threshold of just above 35 percent of the total electorate to make the vote binding.

But almost a quarter are still undecided, preventing the "Yes" camp from banking on a smooth ride after what analysts say is a limp campaign focusing on the wallet rather than values.

"I voted in favour of the EU," said Linda Vaivade, 23. "We cannot afford to be outside."

Polls opened at 7am in the ex-Soviet republic and close at 10pm. A full count is expected four hours later.

Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia have already voted to join the EU. The 10th nation to join, Cyprus, is not holding a referendum.

A "Yes" vote in Latvia would be a welcome relief for Brussels after Sweden rejected the euro last weekend.

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