- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2012

ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatians voted Sunday in favor of joining the European Union amid a record small referendum turnout in a sign of how much the debt-stricken 27-nation bloc has lost in its appeal within the aspiring member-states.

The state referendum commission said that with about 50 percent of the ballot calculated, about 67 percent of those who took part in the referendum answered “yes” to the question: “Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?”

About 32 percent were against, while the rest of the ballots were invalid. About 42 percent of eligible voters were estimated to have taken part in the referendum, illustrating voters’ apathy toward the European Union.

“The people are obviously tired,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said. “It would have been better that the turnout was larger, but that’s reality.”

Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and will become its 28th member in July 2013, after all EU states ratify the deal.

The Croats were deeply divided before the referendum.

Those who favor the EU said their Balkan country’s troubled economy - burdened by recession, a $61 billion foreign debt and a 17 percent unemployment rate - will revive because of access to wider European markets and job opportunities that the membership should bring.

“It’s a big moment in our history. We are joining more successful countries in Europe,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said after casting his ballot. “I’m happy that Europe will become my home.”

Opponents said Croatia has nothing to gain by entering the bloc, which is fighting off the bankruptcy of some of its members. They said that Croatia will only lose its sovereignty and the national identity it fought for in a war for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“I voted against because I don’t think we’ll do well in the EU,” said university student Matea Kolenc, 23. “I heard a lot of bad things about the EU, its economic situation and what it has to offer.”

The Balkan nation started negotiating its EU entry six years ago. Since then the popularity of the bloc has faded, as Croats realize that EU membership would not automatically lead to prosperity.

Many in Croatia and the rest of the EU also wonder what is the bloc going to gain from the country that is ripe with corruption and has economic woes that are among the deepest in the Balkans.

Croatia’s credit rating was last year reduced to a step above junk bonds by Standard & Poor’s, which cited the country’s deteriorating fiscal position and external financing for its decision.

In a sign of deep divisions in Croatia over the membership, police clashed Saturday in downtown Zagreb with a group of nationalist protesters who attempted to take down an EU flag.

Numerous anti-EU graffiti, some saying “Stop the Destruction, No to EU,” appeared Sunday on the walls of voting stations in the Croatian Adriatic coast port of Split, the hotbed of nationalists.

Croatian officials, who have launched a pro-EU campaign before the referendum, warned that a “no” vote would deprive the country of the much-needed accession funds, and that even the payment of pensions for retirees and war veterans could be in jeopardy.

Croatia has received around $193 million in pre-accession assistance since 2007.

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