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Baltic Russians Pose Challenge to the EU

Some 2 million ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians will enter the European Union's fold in 2004 -- after Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania voted to join the expanding bloc. The native Russian speakers -- mostly ethnic Russians who immigrated to the Baltics during 50 years of Soviet occupation to fill jobs in Communist-era plants or to work at Red Army bases -- will offer new opportunities but also new challenges for the EU, Baltic observers say.

The Baltic Russians, who retain close ties to their eastward neighbor, will add to Europe's cultural diversity and could serve as mediators fostering EU-Russian trade. But many fear being marginalized and forgotten and are likely to press EU policymakers to address their grievances.

The largest of the communities is in Latvia, with some 1 million Russian speakers making up the country's 2.4 million residents. In Estonia, there are 500,000 Russians in the 1.4 million population, and in Lithuania, with 3.5 million residents, there are some 300,000.

There's little unanimity among Russians here about whether EU entry will benefit them. Wealthy Russian businessmen tend to back membership, echoing arguments by pro-EU governments here that seamless access to EU markets and EU aid will raise everyone's living standards. Many average Russian speakers don't buy it. "We're going to be serfs within the EU," said 75-year-old retired factory worker Glifira Ovchinnikova in Riga. "Prices will go up, and so will unemployment. Who is going to care about us Russians when Latvia is in the EU?"

Latvians voted decisively to join the EU on Saturday, with 67 percent casting ballots in favor and 32.3 percent against, the Central Election Commission said Sunday. More than 70 percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum.

In Latvia, some 500,000 Russian-speakers have citizenship and an equal number don't. The situation is the same in Estonia, but not Lithuania, where all residents were given citizenship after independence. Noncitizens in Latvia and Estonia have all rights accorded to citizens, Baltic officials say, except the right to vote in national elections -- and referendums.

(The Moscow Times 22.ix.03)

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