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Estonians Prepare for Referendum on EU Membership - 2003-09-12

Estonians vote Sunday in a national referendum to decide whether to join the European Union. In the most recent polls, a majority of Estonians say they favor membership in the EU.

Nearly 900,000 Estonians are eligible to vote. The referendum is non-binding, but parliament is widely expected to follow voters' wishes.

In an appeal to voters earlier this week, Estonian President Arnold Ruutel said a yes vote would enable Estonia to escape from what he called the grey zone between the EU and the new Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, comprising nations of the former Soviet Union. By saying no, President Ruutel says, Estonians may find themselves in a blind alley with no way out.

Analyst Dmitri Trenin of Moscow's Carnegie Center agrees that a no vote carries risks.

"I think that the Estonians have to think of themselves, if they want to be successful, as part of a larger European home," he said. "If they prefer to stay away and exercise the Norway model [of neutrality/non-alliance], I think that they have been successful enough to get by, but they will be missing opportunities."

For example, Mr. Trenin says, by being accepted as part of the European integration process, Estonia might also advance domestic integration. Estonia has a large Russian-speaking population, numbering around 450,000 and relations between them and ethnic Estonians have long been strained.

Estonia regained its independence in 1991 after more than 50 years of Soviet domination, and since then it has transformed its economy and instituted wide-ranging democratic reforms.

Recent polls show the pro-EU camp is growing and a majority of Estonians will vote in favor membership in the European Union. The no vote is expected to come mainly from nationalists, pensioners and those who were left behind in the country's swift march to a market economy.

Support for EU membership has been growing slowly in Estonia, where, analyst Dmitri Trenin explains, many people believe the country can do well without taking part in the European integration process.

"The biggest problem in a way, it's an irony really, has been Estonia's relevant success with post-Communist transformation," said Mr. Trenin. "They've been so successful, that they think they can do a lot of things on their own without actually joining the club [the EU]. And Estonians have the habit of looking down on some of their neighbors, including some EU members... that's a national trait."

Estonia is the seventh of eight former east bloc countries to vote on whether to join the EU in May. Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic already held referendums earlier this year and agreed to join next May. Residents in the last country - Latvia - will go to the polls next Saturday [September 20].