ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatians voted Sunday in a referendum on whether to join the European Union — a test of how much the debt-stricken 27-nation bloc has lost in its appeal among aspiring new members because of its crisis.
Several pre-vote surveys suggest that between 56 and 60 percent of those who take part in the vote will answer "yes" to the question: "Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?"
Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and is on track to become a member in July 2013, if Croat voters say yes and all of the bloc's states later ratify the deal.
Those who are for the EU say their Balkan country's troubled economy — burdened by recession, a euro48-billion ($61-billion) foreign debt and a 17 percent unemployment rate — will revive due to 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," Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic said after casting his ballot, adding that he expects a "Yes" vote in the referendum.
Opponents say Croatia has nothing to gain by entering the bloc, which is fighting off the bankruptcy of some of its members. They say 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 vote got off to a slow start. About 34 percent of the voters cast their ballots nine hours into the referendum, the state electoral commission said. That is almost 16 percentage points less than during parliamentary elections in December when a center-left coalition ousted the conservatives.
The Balkan nation started negotiating its EU entry six years ago, but 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 by ratings agency Standard & Poor's which cited its deteriorating fiscal position and external financing for its decision. If it enters the EU in 2013, Croatia won't be adopting the euro currency for several more years, and is unlikely to contribute to its further plunge.
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. Police covered the signs with white paint.
Croatian officials, who have launched a pro-EU campaign ahead of 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 euro150 million ($193 million) in pre-accession assistance since 2007. It is to receive another euro150 million for 2012 and euro95 million ($122 million) in 2013.
"Clearly all that funding will be stopped if the Croats say no in the referendum," Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said.
Croatia's pro-government media have also tried to scare Croatians by saying that if they reject the EU, they would have to return to some sort of a Balkan union with their former wartime foes, Serbia, which has been struggling to gain a candidacy status in the bloc.
Eldar Emric contributed to this report.