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Lithuanian Referendum on EU Membership Under Way - 2003-05-10

Lithuanians are voting in a referendum to decide whether to join the European Union. Most polls indicate solid support for membership. But there are fears that a low turnout in the two-day poll might create problems.

Voters lined up at polling stations across the small republic on the Baltic Sea to take part in what could be a major turning point in Lithuania's history. The country is one of 10 European nations, most of them former communist states, that have been invited to join the European Union a year from now.

Recent opinion polls indicate that around 65 percent of the country's 3.5 million people favor the move.

But Lithuanians have been through difficult economic times since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and many of its citizens seem indifferent about the issue of EU membership.

A turnout of less than 50 percent would mean the polling results would be invalid.

Taking this into account, the government has undertaken a get-out-the-vote campaign. Polling stations have even been set up in shopping malls, and they will remain open both Saturday and Sunday.

If voters approve the referendum, Lithuania would become the first former Soviet republic to say 'yes' to the European Union.

The Soviet Red army occupied the country in 1940, along with neighboring Estonia and Latvia. Much bitterness remains from the long Soviet occupation, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But some oppose joining the European Union because they see it as coming under a new kind of foreign domination.

Opposition to joining is stronger in Latvia and Estonia, which are due to hold their own referendums in September.

All three republics have also been invited to join the NATO military alliance.

Malta, Slovenia and Hungary have already voted in favor of joining the European Union, while Slovakia and Poland are to hold their votes on membership soon.