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Estonians Vote on EU Membership - 2003-09-14

Voters in the Baltic republic of Estonia are deciding Sunday whether to join the European Union. Opinion polls taken on the eve of the vote predict a big win for the "Yes" campaign.

Voters went to polling stations all over Estonia to make one of the most important decisions ever in the small Baltic republic of 1.4 million.

Close to 900,000 people are eligible to vote in the referendum, and the turnout is expected to be boosted by warm, clear weather.

A simple majority is required for the referendum to pass, enabling Estonia to join nine other countries that are also due to join the EU next May. The country's two main polling institutes found recently that 67-78 percent of Estonians are expected to vote yes.

Most of those saying they'll vote yes said they hope joining the union will provide a boost to Estonia's economy, which grew at a healthy 5.6 percent last year.

Many of Estonia's neighbors have sought to encourage a yes vote, especially Finland which shares deep linguistic and historical ties with Estonia.

Some Estonians remain skeptical about the plan, saying they oppose surrendering sovereignty over national affairs to Euro bureaucrats in Brussels.

They also say that while there could be some economic gains, joining the union could mean higher prices for basic goods.

Small business people fear they will loose competitive advantage to firms in other European countries with much more powerful economies. This view is also prevalent in neighboring Latvia, which will hold its own referendum on EU membership next Saturday. Yes supporters in Estonia say that approval in Sunday's vote could encourage voters in Latvia to follow suit.

Despite similar skepticism in neighboring Lithuania, voters there gave an overwhelming 91 percent approval in May.

Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have also held votes approving membership in the union. Cyprus, which is also scheduled to join the EU next year, is not holding a vote on the issue.

EU membership does not mean the 10 would automatically adopt the Euro currency; that decision isn't expected for at least several years.

Along with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has a long and troubled history with its giant eastern neighbor, Russia.

All three countries were occupied by Soviet forces for half a century, finally regaining their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In addition to the EU, the three have also been invited to join the NATO military alliance, an issue that has raised far more concern in Russia.