VILNIUS - In a frantic effort to help Lithuania maximize its EU financial support for agriculture, the government has secured from the European Commission an extension of the declaration deadline in order for farmers to receive crop funding.
On May 21 Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas announced that farmers would have until the beginning of July to file the necessary paperwork, a full month longer than EU regulations stipulate. He said that only about 90,000 farmers-roughly 40 percent of the country's total agricultural workforce-had made their declarations by mid-May.
While it may be nothing more than a matter of seeds, crop declaration means big money for Lithuania. Preliminary figures estimate that in 2004, farmers could receive as much as 600 million litas (174 million euros) in direct agricultural subsidies for crops alone, with a similar amount being promised for the support of animal husbandry.
Moreover, data collected during this planting season will be used to calculate future EU budgets, meaning that crops left undeclared this year will reduce Brussels' allocations to Lithuania for years to come.
While onlookers have blamed various factors-from a government information campaign perceived as inefficient to Euroskepticism in the countryside-for the poor participation, it appears that the greatest hindrance to full compliance is a belief among many farmers that they stand nothing to gain.
"Many of these people are pensioners who have only three or four hectares of land, and who don't believe it's worth the effort," said Laima Ilipaviciene, press secretary for the Lithuanian Chamber of Agriculture.
"Aside from that, many of them are less-educated and intimidated by the process. When a surveyor comes and tells them to point out their land on a map, they simply can't read the map," she explained.
Yet another factor riding against Lithuanian farmers is the region's climate, which dictates that crops are sown later than in warmer parts of the continent, giving farmers less time between their planting season and the EU-wide deadline.
"We have promised to bring this issue up with the committee responsible for agriculture in the European Commission," said Virginija Zostatiene, head of the rural development department in the Agriculture Ministry.
Zostatiene further vowed that Lithuania would work with neighboring countries that have similar planting cycles, such as Latvia and Poland, to put the deadline timing at the top of the committee's agenda.
As bureaucrats in Vilnius have begun to notice a potential loss in massive amounts of money promised to the national economy, the campaign to whip up enthusiasm for crop declaration has led to strange bedfellows. Acting President Arturas Paulauskas traveled through rural towns and villages in mid-May with officials from the Agriculture Ministry.
At the same time, weeks before the official start of the presidential campaign, candidate Petras Austrevicius, Lithuania's former chief negotiator with Brussels, unleashed a deluge of television advertisements urging declaration.
Austrevicius will face off against Ceslovas Jursenas, the presidential candidate nominated by Brazauskas' Social Democrat Party, in the extraordinary June 13 elections.
Even the country's Roman Catholic bishops added their voice to the fray when they issued on May 20 a statement exhorting farmers to "fill out forms and receive direct payments."
While certainly a last-minute effort, the recent burst of attention being paid to crop declaration is providing hope that Lithuania will roll back the clock and manage to pick up as much EU money as it possibly can.
"Right now we're seeing several thousand people register per day. If this trend remains stable, I think it is possible that we will lose no more than 10 percent of the possible funds," Zostatiene said.