- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

TALLINN, Estonia — Estonians voted yesterday to join a historic expansion of the European Union, fulfilling what once seemed an unattainable dream for the small Baltic state.

The supporters of joining the bloc had 67 percent of the vote, according to results from nearly all polling stations. The other 33 percent voted no on the referendum, Estonia’s Central Election Commission reported.

“This decision will guarantee the future of Estonia,” a smiling Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland said in an interview. “I’m so glad Estonians made this right choice.”

At a festive gathering at the Scotland Yard pub in the capital, Tallinn, Prime Minister Juhan Parts compared the results to the day in 1918 when Estonia declared independence, only to lose its freedom in 1939 and 40 as the Soviet Union first compelled it to accept Soviet bases then invaded outright.

“We will stay Estonian, but with this emotional feeling that we will belong to a family… a family of the European people,” he said.

More than 60 percent of 850,000 eligible voters cast ballots, though there was no minimum turnout requirement for the vote to be valid.

With this vote, eight of 10 nations invited to become members of the European Union next year have approved referendums endorsing the move. Cyprus is leaving the decision to lawmakers while Estonia’s Baltic neighbor, Latvia, will hold a referendum Saturday.

All 10 countries are expected to become full members of the trade bloc in May.

In recent months, Estonian opinion polls had suggested lukewarm support for membership — raising concern that Estonians would snub the powerful European bloc.

But the government and businesses, spooked by the prospect of missing out on access to the lucrative EU market, campaigned aggressively for the yes side.

Entry into the union has been a primary goal since Estonia regained independence amid the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Leaders of the Baltic state have insisted it would boost living standards — at least for future generations.

Twelve years ago, it looked like it would take decades for Estonia to meet EU requirements. The economy was in free fall with annual inflation topping 1,000 percent and Russian troops, remnants of a 50-year Soviet occupation force, stationed throughout the country.

The government implemented radical economic reforms after communism unraveled, and Estonia quickly gained the reputation as the most successful of the 15 former Soviet republics. The country’s gross domestic product increased 10 percent by 1997 and has remained stable. Since regaining independence, inflation has fallen to just below 5 percent.

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