Officials in the Baltic republic, Lithuania, say voters have approved joining the European Union. The small country on the Baltic Sea becomes the first former Soviet republic to vote to join the EU. The affiliation formally takes place next year.
People began celebrating in Lithuania, late Sunday night, when exit polls showed the referendum had been approved. The country's president and other political leaders applauded the result as a historic turning point for the small nation of less than four million people, on the Baltic Sea.
All major politicians backed the move to join the EU and the successful outcome of the two-day referendum was expected. However, there was concern, late Saturday, that low voter turnout might invalidate the results. More than 50 percent of eligible voters had to cast ballots to make the results official.
Voters turned out in large numbers by midday on Sunday, after top political leaders issued statements calling on people to head for polling stations, which even had been set up in shopping malls. In the end, election officials said that turnout was around 64 percent.
Voter apathy appeared to stem from the past decade of difficult economic reforms as the country struggled to emerge from its Soviet past.
The Soviet Red Army occupied Lithuania in 1940, along with neighboring Estonia and Latvia. Yet all three now stand on the threshold of joining not just the EU, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well. Estonia and Latvia are to hold their own polls on EU membership in September.
Surveys indicate fewer people support joining the EU in those countries. Some of them resist the idea of surrendering decision-making powers to Brussels. But, as in Lithuania, most political leaders favor the move, saying it is clearly in the economic interests of all three nations.
There are ten countries now deciding on whether to accept the EU's offer of membership next May. Most are in eastern Europe and were formerly ruled by Communist regimes.
Voters in Slovenia, Hungary and Malta have already approved the move, while Poland and Slovakia hold their own polls, soon.