By Zoran Radosavljevic
ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia voted on Sunday on joining the European Union, a move the government says offers the former Yugoslav republic its only chance of economic recovery despite turmoil in the 27-state bloc.
Opinion polls suggest the binding national referendum should pass, but opponents have appealed to many by playing up fears that membership would end 20 years of Croatia's sovereignty and result in a selloff of its assets and national resources.
Supporters say a 'No' vote will leave Croatia stuck with its struggling fellow ex-Yugoslav republics in the western Balkans, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s.
"This is a big day for Croatia and 2013 will be a turning point in our history. I look forward to the whole of Europe becoming my home," President Ivo Josipovic said after voting.
The EU has said Croatia can become its 28th member on July 1, 2013, after completing seven years of tough entry talks in June last year. It would become the second former Yugoslav republic to join, following Slovenia in 2004.
Croatia was left out of the EU's expansion to ex-communist eastern Europe in 2004 and 2007.
The last opinion poll, released on Saturday, put support for accession at 61 percent. The 'Yes' camp this week won the endorsement of Croatia's powerful Roman Catholic church.
Residents were out in force on the streets of the capital Zagreb on Sunday, enjoying the sparse winter sun. Most of those interviewed by Reuters seemed to be in favor.
"We cannot stay out of the EU, we'll get a lot of good things out of it. Of course, there are downsides as well, but that is something we must get used to," said Josip Zavrski, a retired engineer and one of the first who cast his vote.
OPPONENTS SAY NO RUSH
The 'No' camp says the timing is all wrong because the EU is not what it once was given the debt crisis threatening the single currency. Others complain they are unsure what membership will mean for the country of 4.3 million people.
"The EU is politically and economically unstable. We should vote against and then have a public debate about the pros and cons and inform the citizens properly before holding a next referendum," one of the right-wing parties, the Party of Rights (HSP), said in a statement on the eve of the referendum.
Danijela Rozic, 40, who sells cheese at Zagreb's market, said she did not know how accession might affect farming.
"I am against. I've heard many people say the EU is not all that great, that prices will rise if we join," she said.
Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia in a 1991-95 war, and saw strong growth on the back of foreign lending and waves of tourists to its Adriatic coast.
But its economy has been hit hard by the global economic crisis. Analysts and government officials say a rejection of EU accession on Sunday would bring down the country's credit rating, deter investors and further dampen any prospect of a quick economic recovery.
If the referendum passes, all EU member states must ratify Croatia's accession before it can join, and then it will take several more years before it adopts the euro.
Its current GDP per capita is 61 percent of the EU average. It expects millions of euros from EU funds for infrastructure and regional development.
Voting ends at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) and first results are expected around an hour after polls close.