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With Eyes on Russia, Lithuania Joins Eurozone

  • Reuters

Foil-wrapped chocolate euros are shown in a shop in Vilnius, Dec. 31, 2014.

Foil-wrapped chocolate euros are shown in a shop in Vilnius, Dec. 31, 2014.

Lithuania joined the eurozone Thursday, hoping to anchor itself in Europe as its former master Russia flexes its military muscle in the region.

The first Soviet republic to declare independence, in 1990, Lithuania is the last of the three Baltic states to join the currency union and will be the last country to do so for the foreseeable future.

By becoming the 19th member of the euro bloc, Lithuania hopes for a boost in trade and lower borrowing costs to help it recover from a 15 percent contraction in 2009 at the height of the global financial crisis.

But the country's central bank governor, Vitas Vasiliauskas, stressed the "geopolitical" significance of the move, which puts the former Soviet state firmly in the sphere of what used to be considered Western Europe.

"You live where you live — you have to keep that in mind," he told Reuters when asked about benefits of eurozone entry, referring to the recent flare-up in tensions in the region.

Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis, which included the annexation of Crimea, has awakened fears in the Baltics that they could be next. All have sizable ethnic Russian minorities.

NATO scrambled its jets more than 150 times in 2014 in response to Russian sorties, three times more than in the previous year. Moscow also held surprise military exercises in Kaliningrad, its enclave that borders Lithuania, in December, with 9,000 troops and 55 ships.

Despite rising political tensions, Lithuania's credit rating is now well into investment grade, and rating agency Fitch expects its economy to grow by 3.5 percent in 2015, three times as fast as that of the eurozone as a whole.

Still, the common currency remains a divisive issue, with polls showing half the population of 3 million still not convinced dumping the litas is a good idea.

Three-quarters of people expect price increases after adopting the euro, and almost two-thirds fear Lithuania is losing part of its identity, a Eurobarometer poll found.

"I think it will be hard for my parents to get adjusted to it, but after some time, I think, it will all be fine,'' said student Domas Ziegoraitis, 16.

Estonia joined the eurozone in 2011, followed by Latvia in 2014. All three Baltic nations joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

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