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Latvia Votes by Wide Margin in Favor of Joining EU - 2003-09-21

Voters in the former Soviet republic of Latvia have overwhelmingly decided to join the European Union. Saturday's vote was the last in a series of referendums on the planned expansion of the EU from 15 to 25 countries next May.

Latvians approved the plan to enter the EU by a wide margin, confounding predictions that the vote was going to be close.

Sixty-seven percent of voters said yes to the referendum, meaning that the small Baltic nation will join nine other countries who've already approved the move to expand the EU to 25 nations from the current 15.

Most of those countries are in Eastern Europe, including Latvia's neighbors Estonia and Lithuania.

As in those two nations, many Latvian voters said the invitation to join the union was the best way to make a final break with the country's long and troubled Soviet past.

However, close to 33 percent did vote "no," virtually the same total of Estonians who held their own referendum on the issue a week ago.

Skeptics in both countries said they risk losing control over national affairs to the larger countries in the EU bloc. Others said it was too early to make the move.

There was also a lot of skepticism in Latvia's sizable Russian-speaking minority, who make up more than one-third of the population.

Almost all of the Russians arrived during the half-century when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union, and a large number of them did not vote in the referendum because they don't have Latvian citizenship.

But in the end the government was successful in convincing a majority of Latvians that they do stand to benefit by joining the EU.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and other top officials mounted an effort to convince Latvians to approve the referendum.

After casting her ballot, the Latvian president said rejoining Europe would end the turmoil that began with the infamous pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

"For Latvia it's putting the final, full stop to the sequels of the Second World War and wiping out forever the divisions on the map of Europe that the odious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 had placed there," he said.

The pact led to the Soviet occupation of the 3 Baltic states, which lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since then all 3 have struggled to overcome the legacy of that difficult period, and relations with Russia remain tense.

Moscow is also not happy that the three countries are joining the NATO military alliance next year, the first time territory of the former Soviet Union will do so.