Czech President Vaclav Klaus has
expressed concern about EU entry

An overwhelming majority of  77% approved EU entry and set the stage for the former communist nation to join the bloc of wealthy European countries in May 2004.

Estimates put the voter turnout around 55 %. But no minimum rate was needed to validate the referendum.

"This is a success for each and every citizen of the Czech Republic," said Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda after the exit poll results were announced.

It was the first referendum in the central European country since Czechoslovakia split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Leading up to the vote, opinion polls had been predicting a strong win for the ‘Yes’ vote, but there was some hesitation.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus was among those who expressed doubts about joining the EU. He compared it to being a lump of sugar being dropped into a cup of coffee.

He declined to say how he voted.

"I am absolutely sure that my vote was the right one and you may just guess," he said.

Czechs have been seeing social benefits dimnish even as the cost of living kept going up.

While prices inched closer to European levels, the average salary remained at $580 per month, a fraction of the average EU wage.

Further convergence between the Czech Republic and its richer EU partners has fuelled fears that more difficult times lay ahead.

Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Slovakia have already approved joining the EU in referendums, but voter apathy almost scuttled "yes" votes in several countries.

Polls are still to take place in Latvia and Estonia.