- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

RIGA, Latvia — Latvians yesterday celebrated the country’s vote to join the European Union, comparing the national referendum to its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

But for some, the joy was tempered by a standoff within the country’s fragmented, four-party government.

“Latvia returns to Europe,” read the headline splashed across a special edition of the nation’s largest daily paper, Diena.

An elated Prime Minister Einars Repse congratulated some 2,000 cheering young people at an old-town square in Riga early yesterday.

“Latvians understand this is a decisive moment,” he said.

Sixty-seven percent of voters approved joining the union, and 32 percent voted against it, the Central Election Commission reported. Nearly 1 percent of the ballots were invalid.

Seventy-two percent of the country’s 1.4 million eligible voters cast ballots, one of the highest turnouts for a referendum or a national election in Latvia.

Latvia was the last of 10 nations to approve EU membership in a historic expansion that increases the community to 25 countries. All the new candidates are expected to join in May.

The results “should encourage all of us to work even harder in uniting the continent,” European Commission President Romano Prodi said. “The citizens of nine countries have spoken and voiced a strong ‘yes’ for European integration.”

In Latvia, some celebrations became muted after one party in the center-right ruling coalition said it would quit the administration unless Mr. Repse resigned.

Coalition infighting had been apparent for months, but the ruling parties, which all supported joining the European Union, agreed not to withdraw before the referendum to avoid hurting their campaign.

The prime minister, who came to power in 2002, said he could continue to run the government with just three parties in his coalition. The turmoil is not expected to affect EU membership.

Latvia, which will become a member of NATO next year, saw familiar arguments for and against joining the European Union. Supporters said it would cement the nation’s ties to the West and boost living standards, while critics warned of a loss of sovereignty and rising prices.

The country’s government and business community backed entry, touting it as a way to ensure stability in the Baltic state, which gained independence from Moscow amid the 1991 Soviet collapse.

“In the last hundred years, we’ve had no generation that hasn’t faced turmoil. The EU generation will be the first,” former Prime Minister Andris Berzins said.

Estonia, another Baltic state and former part of the Soviet Union, approved a referendum on EU membership by a similar 2-to-1 margin on Sept. 14. Lithuania, the third Baltic state, approved its referendum by a 91 percent margin.

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