SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) -- Bulgarians were having their say Sunday in a referendum on whether to build a new nuclear power plant, a choice also seen as a barometer of the relationship between the European Union's poorest member and Russia.
First exit poll results announced by the Alfa Research Agency showed that 20.3 percent of the 6.9 million eligible voters cast a ballot in the referendum — far below the threshold of 60 percent needed to validate the vote. Of the votes cast, some 60 percent supported the new nuclear plant, according to the polls. Official results were expected Sunday evening.
The vote was called by the opposition Socialist party in an effort to force the government to reverse its decision to scrap a deal with Russia. Though polls suggest the turnout will be too low to make the vote valid, it is seen as important both as a gauge of Bulgarians' views on the relationship and as a preview of this year's general elections.
The pro-Western government of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov last March canceled the deal with Russia's Atomstroyexport for a 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant at the northern town of Belene, arguing that estimated costs of up to €10 billion ($13 billion) were unbearable for the cash-strapped country, and citing the lack of Western investors.
Analysts have linked the decision to the government's declared strategy of reducing the country's almost total dependence on Russian energy sources.
The Russian company filed a one-billion-euro ($1.3 billion) compensation claim at the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration.
The opposition Socialists, who had signed the deal in 2008, collected nearly 545,000 valid signatures, crossing the half-million mark that automatically triggers a referendum. Their calls for a yes vote on Sunday were also backed by smaller nationalist parties.
Bulgaria's first referendum since the fall of communism in 1989 has polarized opinion along party lines, turning it into a popularity test ahead of general elections in July.
Analysts expect that most of those who vote Sunday will be hard-core supporters of each camp, producing the low turnout that would make the referendum invalid.
Since the 1970s Bulgaria has operated a nuclear power station at Kozloduy, of which four of the six units were shut down as a condition for the country's EU admission in 2007. The terms for safe exploitation of the two remaining 1,000-megawatt reactors there expire in 2017 and 2021.
Sticking to its diversification policy the government is considering a new nuclear unit at Kozloduy and has awarded U.S. company Westinghouse Electric Co. a contract to study the feasibility of installing an additional reactor there.