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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lithuanians Approve Entry Into EU

ReutersLithuanian President Rolandas Paksas, right, and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas waving during the vote count early Monday.
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Lithuania became the first former Soviet republic to approve entry into the European Union after voters in the Baltic country overwhelmingly backed the move in a weekend referendum -- with Lithuanians hopeful that membership would further improve their lives.

With 100 percent of the country's 2,040 districts counted, election officials said returns showed 91 percent voted in favor of joining.

"Lithuania Wakes Up in the European Union," read a banner headline on the front page of Monday's biggest daily newspaper, Lietuvos Rytas.

In an editorial, it added that EU membership should boost living standards and help the country "fully reach the levels of the modern world."

Leaders and residents celebrated into the early morning hours Monday with champagne, singing the national anthem and fireworks above the capital, Vilnius. On the steps of the presidential palace, rock bands played for some 500 enthusiastic youths -- many waving EU flags.

Lithuania's staunchly pro-EU leaders called the referendum a turning point in the history of the country, bounced for so many centuries between one regional power and another.

Supporters said entry will return Lithuania to its rightful place in Europe and give the historically vulnerable nation a sense of security. Incoming investment and EU aid money could also boost the economy -- already booming with 9 percent growth during the first quarter of 2003 -- to loftier heights.

In Brussels, Belgium, European Commission President Romano Prodi called the landslide victory a meaningful sign for Lithuania's future in the EU.

"As a result, there will be a strong voice for Lithuania inside the EU," he said. "This will be good for Lithuania, and I am convinced it will also be good for the EU."

In Copenhagen, Denmark's capital, where the 15 EU members agreed in December on enlarging the bloc with 10 new members, Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller said the outcome "sends a good and important message to the populations in the other candidate countries that will vote later."

The new members are to join the EU in 2004. Malta, Slovenia and Hungary have held successful ballots. Slovakia will vote May 16-17 and Poland in June.

The other EU candidates include Cyprus and the Czech Republic.

Parliaments in the current 15 EU countries must also ratify agreements admitting new members.

Election officials said 64 percent of the nation's 2.7 million registered voters cast ballots -- exceeding the required 50 percent minimum. Polls were open Saturday and Sunday.

EU-bound as it may be, Lithuania faces social and economic problems, including a yawning gap between rich and poor. While increased wealth is apparent in more and more giant shopping malls and posh restaurants in the cities, poverty exists in rural areas. Most farmers cannot afford modern equipment, and they hope subsidies from the EU will improve their lot.