Slovenian voters overwhelmingly approved a double referendum on NATO and European Union membership on Sunday, paving the way for the small Alpine nation to join both groups next year.
Voters in Ljubljana and the rest of the country gave strong support to both NATO and the EU
With 99 percent of the votes counted, the preliminary results showed 90 percent of Slovenians backing EU membership and 66 percent for joining the NATO military alliance.
“This is the beginning of a new era for Slovenia,” said Prime Prime Minister Anton Rop after the vote.
Though the outcome on EU membership was never really in doubt, the decision whether to become part of the transatlantic military alliance was less certain, despite a heavy last-minute lobbying effort by the government.
Slovenia, which broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, has become a prosperous land of two million people known for its stability. It is often considered to have more in common with its neighbor Austria than with other fractious Balkans states like Serbia or Bosnia.
But stability made some Slovenians question the need to join NATO, the West’s premiere military alliance. While other former eastern bloc nations such as Poland, Hungary and Latvia have considered NATO membership key to securing their new-found independence after the fall of Communism, Slovenians look to Austria and see it doing just fine with only EU membership.
"There had been some concerns, especially regarding NATO," said Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek. "But this is a good result and the future will be less uncertain."
Support Rises After Djindjic Assassination
Polls last month put support for NATO membership as low as 37 percent, as voters worried over being dragged into conflicts like war with Iraq and as NATO members exposed the alliance’s deep internal divisions over the conflict. But support jumped following an intensive government campaign and the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic last week, which showed just how dangerous the rest of the Balkans remains.
NATO hopes to conclude membership negotiations with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia on March 26 with the signing of accession protocols. All are expected to become members next year. Slovenia is so far the only nation to call a referendum on the issue.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson
“I welcome the vote of confidence Slovenians have given NATO, and also their willingness to accept the obligations of membership,” said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson.
Though far less contentious than the NATO vote, the referendum for EU membership was also not without significance beyond Slovenia’s borders. Following Malta’s extremely narrow vote to join the group earlier this month, the strong Slovenian result could help momentum for enlargement.
Most EU candidates will hold a referendum this year. Hungary will be the first larger country to vote on EU membership on April 12. Before the new members can join in May 2004, the accession treaty must also be ratified by the parliaments of the candidate countries and of all 15 current EU member states.
The 10 candidates for enlargement are the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta.