VILNIUS - Equipped with posters shouting "Turkey 's Yes! Turkey in EU 's No!", a dozen young Vilnius residents held a small rally on June 27 in front of Parliament as part of the multinational initiative urging officials in Brussels not to open membership talks with Turkey.
The small group, easily outnumbers by the journalists who came to cover the story, urged their compatriots and legislators to sign a petition addressed to the European Parliament to prevent accession talks with Turkey from beginning.
Prior to the protest, activists from Voice for Europe, a collection of mainly new member states, had gathered some 30,000 signatures in other European cities supporting their cause.
Voice for Europe was launched as a public awareness campaign in Budapest in mid-July. Volunteers, largely working at their own expense, have being touring European cities 's Vilnius was the 12th city where similar protests were held. They argue that Turkey's accession to the EU would impede Europe's development, as absorbing such a large, poor country would put an unbearable financial and economic strain on the union. Other arguments include Turkey's lack of democratic roots, its deep Muslim roots, and the large number of human rights violations recorded in the country.
"You can't change people within one day. The majority of Turkish people don't want to accept European values, the people naturally resist what's alien to them," said coordinator of the campaign Daniella Csizmadia.
"Citizens of Turkey are against membership. And we're not making this up 's we've been told this by Turkish sociologists," she added.
Even though membership negotiations with Turkey could take as long as 15 years, the European Union should be defined much more clearly before the opening of talks, Voice for Europe activists claimed.
The organisation is suggesting that, in lieu of full membership, Turkey should have a special partnership with the EU, the world's largest trading bloc.
Otherwise, the limits for the EU's enlargement should be drawn rationally, according to cultural and geographical factors, activists said.
"Turkey is next to Middle East conflict zones, which means these conflict zones would be borders of the EU. This would only strengthen and intensify tensions within the European community itself," argued Csizmadia.
Turkish Embassy officials said they were disappointed that the media blew the protest out of proportion. "I think it's very sad that many articles were saying that Lithuania's joining the multinational initiative of saying 'no' to Turkish membership. But those were 10 young students at the demonstration, and only one of them was Lithuanian," said embassy first secretary Nilufer Kaygisiz.
"All those headlines were very misleading," he added.
Lithuania's Foreign Ministry has supported Turkey's drive toward European integration, but it also has stated in no uncertain terms that if Turkey wants to join the bloc it must comply with the requirements set for human rights and democracy.
The protest has provoked a discussion in Lithuanian society. Speaking on the Ziniu Radijas radio program, Parliamentary Deputy Chairman Ceslovas Jursenas said, "There should be a place reserved for Turkey. The EU enlargement idea, as I understand it, is to expand the united, prosperous and democratic Europe."
He added, "If there are more democratic nations and the high values of the EU are spread to the very edge, I mean to the Middle East, in my opinion, that would be a positive thing and we should be happy about it."
He also said that those who protested against Turkish membership should remember that Turkey is a member of NATO and that it voted for Lithuania's admission to the political and military alliance a couple of years ago.
"Those who protest against Turkey's entry to the EU today somehow kept silent during our accession to NATO. Turkey's vote at that time was important," he said. "But now, when we are in the EU and NATO, we start lecturing others. Yes, perhaps we can teach others something and we have the right to do so. But let's not forget our debt to Turkey," Jursenas, a Social Democrat, said.
Conservative Jurgis Razma, who exited Parliament to talk with Voice for Europe members, regretted that this campaign had attracted only small numbers of Lithuania's youth. "We still haven't completely conceived the idea that we are members of the EU, that our voice can be heard and can determine something," Razma said.