Croatians have voted in favour of joining the European Union in a crucial referendum for the future of the Balkan country, 20 years after breaking away from socialist Yugoslavia.
Preliminary results showed that, with 38 per cent of the votes counted, 67 per cent had said "Yes" to becoming the bloc's 28th member.
"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.
Croatia's leaders say that entering the bloc has been a strategic goal since Croatia won its hard-fought independence following the 1991-95 war with rebel Serbs and will confirm a break from the volatile Balkans region.
The importance of EU membership is one of the few issues on which all major Croatian political parties agree.
Of the six former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia is the only EU member although Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia all have aspirations.
"I will vote for the EU since I believe it is good for Croatia, it offers an opportunity ... for the Croatian people to prove themselves," Zoran Milanovic, the prime minister, told national television on the eve of the vote.
In the 1990s, when other post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe were strengthening their democracies and paving their way towards EU integration, Croatia's EU aspirations were halted by the 1991-95 war and its legacy.
It was not until 2000 that the election of pro-European rulers enabled Croatia's transformation into a genuine parliamentary democracy eligible for EU candidate status.
However, long and often thorny accession talks that opened in 2005 dampened enthusiasm for the EU.
Many of the criteria imposed by Brussels, notably full co-operation with the UN war crimes court, were seen as a form of blackmail and going against national interests.
In a surprise move late on Saturday, former General Ante Gotovina, whose flight from the UN tribunal hampered Croatia's EU bid, urged citizens to cast a "yes" vote. Gotovina, still seen as a national hero by many Croatians, is held in the prison of The Hague-based court that sentenced him to 24 years.
His conviction in 2011 led to a surge of anti-European sentiment in Croatia.
The former Yugoslav republic signed an EU accession treaty in December that paved the way for its accession to the bloc next year.
Apart from clearing the referendum in Croatia, the treaty will also have to be ratified by all current member states of the EU.
Croatian politicians have cautioned repeatedly that EU membership would not automatically resolve all economic woes but stress it would give the country new opportunities.
For the past three years, Croatia, whose economy relies on Adriatic tourism, has been mostly in recession.
The national bank forecasts 2011 growth at a modest 0.4 per cent, but sees the economy shrinking by 0.2 per cent this year. Unemployment is almost 18 per cent.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies