10/05/2003 - Analysis
"I support Lithuania's membership of the European Union." This is the sentence that appears on the ballot paper that the majority of Lithuanians should place in the box on 10th and 11th May when the European referendum takes place in this Baltic State the population of which has always supported the country's integration into the Union. The Lithuanian authorities are more frightened of a possible en masse abstention rather than a lack of support for membership. The Seimas (The only Chamber in Parliament) voted therefore for an amendment to the electoral law on 25th February: whereas before the law demanded that the decision being voted upon be confirmed by at least one third of those on the electoral role, a simple majority of voters will now be enough to make the referendum both valid and obligatory. Likewise the referendum will take place over two days in order to enable the maximum number of Lithuanians to go and vote.
Since its independence on 11th May 1990 the Baltic Republic has continued to follow its objective to join the European Union. Lithuania, that was the first former Soviet republic to leave the USSR, is in fact a very old European country that is close to the culture of the European States but the random nature of History often separated it from the western part of the continent.
Lithuania has been a Parliamentary Democracy since the adoption of the Constitution by referendum in October 1992, and it is a State of Law that respects all of the political criteria established in Copenhagen. In economic terms the country is able to demonstrate honourable results. The rise in exports (+ 20% in one year) and the recovery of domestic demand have enabled a 5.9% recovery of growth in 2001 against 2.7% the previous year. The public deficit continues to drop representing 1.9% of the GDP in 2002 versus 3.1% in 2000 and especially 8% in 1999; direct foreign investments increased by 37% in 2001 and the growth of industrial production rose from 5.3% in 2000 to 16.9% in 2001. Structural reforms and privatisations continue, the private domain contributing to 75% of the creation of the GDP. Following this excellent performance the currency, the lita, was aligned with the euro in February 20022. Inflation is under control: it reached 1.2% in 2001. Only the unemployment rate remains high at 11.1%. Finally the Lithuanian economy is very much oriented towards the EU that represents 47.8% of its exports and 44% of its imports.
The nuclear power station at Ignalina that produces 70% of the country's electricity has been a major bone of contention between the EU and Lithuania for a long time. Lithuania is committed to closing one of the two reactors before 2005 (that is equipped with the same Soviet designed reactors as the one that exploded in Tchernobyl (Ukraine) on 26th April 1986 and to proceeding to the final closure of the station before 2009). The three Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) have started working together on the possibility of building a new nuclear power station. The EU has committed itself to providing financial support to close Ignalina, an operation that is estimated at 3 billion euros.
With the help of the EU Lithuania also succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Russian Federation on the Kaliningrad enclave. A text that was signed on 11th November last by the authorities in Brussels and the President of the Russian Federation, plans for facilitated transit documents from 1st July 2003 onwards; multiple entry and exit visas will be provided free of charge or at a low cost by Lithuania to travellers (Russians, Byelorussians or Ukrainians) who are crossing its territory by train or car en route for Kaliningrad. This system will be reviewed in 2005 at the latest. Until the end of 2004 domestic Russian passports will be sufficient to obtain a visa; they will then be replaced by international passports. In addition to this the construction of a high speed train system to ensure the liaison between Kaliningrad and Russia is being studied. The specific question of the Russian enclave will be added to the Baltic Republic's Membership Treaty to the European Union.
Lithuania has estimated the cost of the launch of the agreements and the organisation of the Russian transit en route for the Kaliningrad enclave at over 30 billion euros. In addition to this the EU will transfer 136 million euros to Lithuania to strengthen its 920 Km frontier with Byelorussia and Russia, that will effectively become European Union borders on 1st May 2004. On 17th and 18th April discussions between Russia, Lithuania and the European Union provided solutions to technical questions that were still pending. The Lithuanians accepted the Russian suggestion to reduce formalities as much as possible: Russian citizens will therefore receive their facilitated transit documents when they purchase their train ticket.
Public Opinion and European Integration
Since June 1992, when the first national opinion poll on the European Union took place a majority of Lithuanians have said they are in favour of their country's integration into Europe. 62.5% of them said they were in favour of Lithuania's entry into the EU eleven years ago (versus 4.3% of those against and 32.3% saying they could not answer the question). The pro-Europeans have always been the majority over those against integration except for a period of a few months at the end of 1999 to June 2000 when the European Commission officially requested Lithuania to close the nuclear reactor in Ignalina and to abolish the death penalty. Since then the number of Lithuanians in favour of their country's membership has continued to increase in all the opinion polls reaching the highest point in eleven years.
In the last poll, that was undertaken at the beginning of April by the Vilmorus Institute, credited the "yes" vote for the EU with 66% versus 13% of voters who intend to say "no". Support for Europe has dropped slightly in comparison with the start of the year since 67.7% of Lithuanians said they were in favour of their country's integration into European in January 2003. The inhabitants of the Kaunas constituency, the country's capital from 1919 to 1940 when Vilnius was occupied by Poland, are by far the most fervent Europeans amongst Lithuanians. The future of young people, employment and economic development are the three most frequently mentioned themes by those interviewed about the areas that Lithuania's entry into the European Union will make it possible to improve. But although there is no doubt about the positive result of the referendum on 10th and 11th May the participation rate is worrying the research companies. This might indeed by much lower than planned for, (around 65% according to the opinion polls).
The Electoral Campaign
"I am sure that next year Lithuania will become a member of the EU and NATO," declared the Head of State Rolandas Paksas during his investiture speech before Parliament on 26th February last. His election on 5th January 2003 brought disquiet to European political circles especially when he announced that he would like to re-negotiate certain points of the agreement that had been settled with the Fifteen in terms of agriculture.
On 27th March the President inaugurated a series of speeches over the radio in which he addressed his fellow countrymen on the last Thursday of every month. In the first speech, Rolandas Paksas called on all Lithuanians to vote on 10th and 11th May. "We have finished our membership negotiations, today the most important and most difficult part of the work is ahead of us. Lithuanians are now going to have to choose their future and that of their children," he said thanking all of those who had contributed to furthering the European cause in Lithuania via their work and faith.
All of the country's political movements are calling for a "yes" vote during the referendum. On 11th April the industrial confederation, that associates many company leaders and representatives of the various industrial associations, published a call to support the country's membership of the EU in the Lietuvos Rytas, the leading Lithuanian daily newspaper. Even the farmers - agriculture represents 22% of the working population in Lithuania - admit that there is no other alternative to European integration apart from a return to the Russian fold, that no-one wants - and economic stagnation and political isolation in the ilk of the present situation in Moldavia. Finally the Catholic Church that addresses 75% of Lithuanians called on voters to say "yes" to the referendum. "Today we have no other choice than to be part of a united Europe. We were part of Europe for centuries, now we must say loud and clear that we want to be part of it," indicated a communication signed by the top religious representatives.
The campaign has officially started in the Baltic Republic. A Eurobus, recognisable by its European stars and decorated with the slogan "Let's be European" will cover 5000 Km across the country for a month. Pro and anti-Europeans will each have seven hours airtime on Lithuanian TV and radio to defend their opinions and to put their arguments forward. The budget planned for the referendum will rise to 11 million litas (3.3 million euros) three million of which have been dedicated to the electoral campaign. This is only half of the amount that the Latvian government is spending; three times less than the budget planned by the Estonian government and seven times less than the Polish government. 1.7 million litas will go to the European Committee and the Ministry for Agriculture both of whom are managing the media campaign in support of Lithuania's membership of the European Union.
On 10th and 11th May Lithuanians will say they are in favour of their country integrating the European Union except if there is a surprise. They are expecting much of Europe: economic prosperity, security, improvement of their daily lives. But they do not want to be sub-citizens of the future Europe of 25.