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Yes from the heart of Europe.

The people of Lithuania, the biggest of the three Baltic states, are the first former Soviet subjects to vote to join the European Union. Over 65 per cent of the population turned out for the referendum in May in which around 89 per cent voted 'yes'--eliciting a sigh of relief from the Lithuanian Government, which had feared that voter scepticism towards the EU would win out.

Like most candidate countries, Lithuania was torn by a deep division of opinions about entering the EU. Farmers in particular were concerned. The many reforms of the last decade of the 20th century had exhausted people and made them indifferent to change, says Dr Violeta Pukeliene, one of the leaders of the public information campaign about the EU. 'Though it is paradoxical as the biggest benefit coming from the EU goes to agriculture.'

Dr Pukeliene is Head of the Economics Department at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and also holds the Jean Monnet Chair. She was invited by the Department for Foreign Affairs of the regional municipality to join a team of volunteers, which went to other regions to provide information and arrange discussions about EU membership.

During eight years of teaching and research on European integration, Pukeliene had realized that there was a critical lack of information about the EU. According to one poll 40 per cent of the Lithuanian population had no clear opinion on the EU and 11 per cent said they had no information about it. This was the biggest number of uninformed people in the applicant countries after Bulgaria (13 per cent). She believed that 'only knowledge can determine a solution which is objective'.

The campaign's open and transparent approach encouraged the public to start believing in reforms again. 'People changed their opinions after taking part in the meetings and declared this officially,' she says. 'People were not sceptical in their hearts.' A poll immediately before the referendum showed that 75 per cent of the population were in favour of joining the EU.

Located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania contains the geographical centre of Europe. It borders Latvia, Belarus, Poland and the Kaliningrad district of Russia, and has experienced many invasions through the centuries.

After the outbreak of World War II, Lithuania was occupied three times: in 1940 by the USSR; in 1941 by Nazi Germany; and in 1944 by the USSR again. This final occupation lasted until 1990. The country experienced mass deportations to Siberia (approximately 250,000 people) under the USSR, and the extermination of some 220,000 Jews by Nazi Germany.

Gorbachev's perestroika in 1985 led to liberalization and the 'Singing Revolution' in Lithuania. The first organized opposition to the Communist Party occurred in June 1988, when some two million people from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia linked hands in a human 'Baltic chain' stretching 650 kilometres from Vilnius to Tallin in Estonia. Lithuania was the first Baltic State to regain independence in March 1990.

No wonder the issue of national sovereignty is a sensitive one here. Lithuania shares the fear of other accession countries of ending up on the periphery of an affluent and centralized Old Europe. Before the referendum you could hear people saying, 'We've been in one Union--the USSR--we don't want to join another one.'

Memories of Soviet attempts to homogenize their culture and language are still vivid. 'While in the Soviet Union Lithuanians managed to keep not only their language, but also their cultural heritage and national identity,' says Pukeliene. 'All these values will not vanish in the EU.'

Lithuania is due to become an equal member of the European Union on 1 May 2004, along with nine other countries.
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Title Annotation:People: making a difference
Author:Stepanova, Anastasia
Publication:For A Change
Geographic Code:4EXLT
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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