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Slovenia to join EU and NATO

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Slovenia chose to join NATO on Sunday, overcoming fears of being part of a defensive alliance dominated by the United States, according to the first official results of a referendum overshadowed by the war in Iraq. Voters also approved joining the European Union.

The vote was a victory for the government, which said membership in both organizations was the only way for Slovenia to gain greater international influence. It summed it up its message with the slogan "At home in the EU, safe in NATO."

Preliminary results released by the state electoral commission showed 67 percent voted in favor of NATO and 89 percent in favor of the EU. Those results reflect nearly 90 percent of the NATO votes counted, and 74 percent of the votes on the EU.

Prime Minister Anton Rop welcomed the news, saying Slovenia was "entering a new era." President Janez Drnovsek said: "There were quite a few misgivings, especially concerning NATO. But this is a good result. The future will certainly bring less uncertainty."

The results are legally binding. Slovenia is due to join both NATO and the EU in 2004.

There had been doubts whether the small ex-Yugoslav republic of 2 million would vote to join the military alliance. Support for NATO, once fairly strong, had faltered lately with the buildup and breakout of war in Iraq.

Slovenes are overwhelming against the U.S.-led war, and many here had recently expressed an unwillingness to join an alliance which is viewed as strongly dominated by Washington.

But the result of the NATO vote suggests that fear of remaining excluded from the alliance in the long term prevailed over anxieties about the current war.

"NATO is a necessary evil, but I chose common sense, which tells me it's a lesser evil and that there could always be something worse," said Janez Zebeljan, a hotel receptionist in Ljubljana.

The results are a victory for the all the major parties, which have made the case that membership in both organizations is the only way for the small country to have any influence on international politics.

Recent appeals by Slovene politicians to vote yes to both clubs and a spate of visits by EU and NATO dignitaries seem to have made a difference, increasing support for NATO from an all-time low of 37 percent last month.

But the assassination of the prime minister of nearby Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, and anxieties of renewed instability in the region seem to have increased the attraction of belonging to a defense association.

Leaders had avoided taking a decisive stand on the war ahead of the referendum, resisting U.S. overtures to open the country's airspace and roads for military traffic.

Of seven alliance candidates, Slovenia is the only one to hold a referendum on NATO membership — and the only one that has so far refused to help the U.S. war effort.

Slovenia has witnessed five wars in its region in the last 13 years: its 10-day war of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

"When you have a defensive wall, it's very important on which side you are — inside or outside," Jelko Kacin, chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign policy and a former defense minister, told The Associated Press in an interview.