Estonians deliver huge 'Yes' vote for joining EU

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Estonians have voted strongly in favourt of joining the European Union, preliminary government figures showed late last night - fulfilling what once seemed an unattainable dream for the small, historically vulnerable Baltic state.

Results showed a more than two-to-one margin in favor of joining the bloc as 67 percent of voters in the country of 1.4 million voted yes, compared with 33 percent who voted no, the Central Election Commission reported with 100 percent of its 652 polling stations counted.

"This decision will guarantee the future of Estonia," a smiling Kristiina Ojuland, the country's Foreign Minister, told The Associated Press as the victory for EU proponents became apparent. "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 first declared independence, only to lose its freedom to the 1938 Soviet invasion.

"We will stay Estonian (in the EU), but with this emotional feeling that we will belong to a family ... a family of the European people," he said.

Some 63 percent of 850,000 eligible voters cast ballots, though there was no minimum turnout requirement for the vote to be valid. Even if it failed, parliament wasn't required to adopt the results.

Eight of the 10 new EU invitees have approved their referendums, and Cyprus is leaving the decision to lawmakers. Estonia's Baltic neighbor Latvia will be the last to hold a referendum on Saturday.

All are expected to become full members in May 2004.

At times in recent months, Estonian opinion polls suggested lukewarm support for membership - raising at least the possibility that Estonians could snub the powerful European bloc.

The government and businesses, spooked by prospect of missing out on seamless access to lucrative EU markets, pulled out the stops - and campaign cash - to ensure victory.

EU entry has been a No. 1 goal for every government since Estonia regained independence amid the 1991 Soviet collapse, with leaders insisting it would boost living standards for most and, in the case of the elderly, at least for their children and grandchildren.

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 1000 percent, and Russian troops, remnants of a 50-year Soviet occupation force, remained at hundreds of bases here.

But radical open-market reforms were implemented immediately after communism unraveled, and Estonia quickly gained the reputation as the most successful of the 15 former Soviet republics. Growth exploded and inflation was curbed, standing now at just under 5 percent.

Voters seemed swayed more by psychological factors, including that membership will mark this Nordic-oriented country's return to mainstream Europe after so long on the fringe.

Both sides sometimes resorted to scare tactics to sway the 850,000 eligible voters, many of whom expressed confusion about what EU entry will mean.

Many pro-EU ads raised the specter that Estonia's erstwhile ruler Russia could re-exert its influence if the nation stayed out of mainstream Europe. It listed the half-dozen times Russia attacked Estonia - starting with Ivan the Terrible's invasion in 1558.

One refrain from EU backers was that "a no to the EU is a yes to Russia."