Latvians voted decisively to join the EU, calling the decision just as important as when they declared independence in the 1990s, but the celebration was marred by crisis when one party bolted the ruling coalition.
A beaming, elated Prime Minister Einars Repse congratulated some 2,000 cheering young people at an old town square in Riga yesterday -- waving and donning a blue EU T-shirt.
"Latvians understand this is a decisive moment," he said yesterday on a stage below a banner reading "Welcome Europe!"
"You people will have a big role to play in the EU. Take advantage of it," Repse said.
With more than 80 percent of the country's 1,006 polling districts reporting, 69.5 percent voted in favor, while 29.8 percent voted no, the Central Election Commission reported. More than 70 percent of the country's 1.4 million eligible voters cast ballots.
Amid the success of the referendum, a government crisis arose, with one party in the center-right ruling coalition, Latvia's First, saying it planned to quit the coalition unless Repse resigned.
The four coalition parties had apparently agreed not to withdraw before the referendum, which they supported, fearing it could hamper efforts to convince residents to vote yes. The move won't affect the country's EU accession
Guntars Krasts, from one of the ruling parties, Fatherland and Freedom, confirmed that the government was effectively pulled apart.
"Latvia's First pulled out because of the prime minister, and they are opposed to his management style," he said.
Repse came to power after elections in late 2002 after his New Era party emerged the top vote getter in the election.
Repse appeared to suggest he was willing to continue with just three parties.
"I believe we might as well work in a minority government," he told Latvian news agency LETA.
The referendum was the last held by the 10 candidate countries seeking EU membership. Proponents called it a decision to cement the former Soviet republic's ties to the West.
"In the last hundred years, we've had no generation that hasn't faced turmoil. The EU generation will be the first," said former prime minister Andris Berzins.
Along with Estonia, Latvia was pegged as one of the most skeptical candidates for EU membership, but the decisive vote countered analysts' worries.
"I'm really, really happy," said Inguna Karnupa, a 24-year-old student, clutching three small EU flags. "EU membership will make Latvia a better place to live."
Estonia approved its EU referendum last week by a two-to-one margin.
The yes vote is expected to be a boost for the EU, embarrassed by Sweden's decision last week to reject the euro. In a first reaction, the EU head office cheered the Latvian outcome as a homecoming for a country that came under Soviet domination in 1940 and stayed there for 50 years.
"We welcome Latvia home to Europe," said EU spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori.
To date, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia have voted through referendums to join the EU. Of the 10 candidates, only Cyprus has decided not to hold a vote on membership and will leave it up to legislators. All are expected to formally join in May, expanding the bloc to 25 countries.
Latvia's government and the business community strongly backed EU entry, touting it as a way to ensure the political and economic stability of the Baltic Sea state, which regained independence from Moscow barely a decade ago amid the 1991 Soviet collapse.