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Slovenia's changeover to euro runs smoothly

(LJUBLJANA) - The first hours of Slovenia's changeover from its tolar money to the euro ran smoothly after the tiny Alpine nation became Monday the first former communist state to join the EU's common currency.

"The changeover on cash machines is running as planned," Slovenia's Bank Association said in a statement released Monday morning after the midnight (2300 GMT Sunday) adoption of the euro.

The association said that 72 percent of all automatic teller machines (ATM) in the two-million-population country that were disconnected at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Sunday, had resumed functioning in euros at 4:00 am (0300 GMT).

Representatives of Slovenia's largest gasoline distributor Petrol and the country's Highway Company DARS said that the change to the euro went smoothly at midnight, with only minutes of interruption in their functioning.

While several thousand bank employees were carrying out the technical side of the changeover, tens of thousands of people partied in the streets of Ljubljana in the largest New Year's celebration ever in the Slovenian capital.

An estimated 40,000 people, according to Ljubljana's authorities, gathered in three central squares where street vendors sold food and drinks with prices labelled both in euros and tolars.

After midnight and during the first two weeks of January all stores and offices in Slovenia will continue to accept payments in tolars but will give change exclusively in euros.

At the stroke of midnight, central bank governor Mitja Gaspari had made the first withdrawal of euros from the central bank, holding up 10, 20 and 50 euro notes, as well as some Slovenian euro coins, to watching reporters.

"Farewells usually are not pleasent, but this time we have nice memories (of the tolar) and we trust and believe we are entering a new period with a currency that is as good or even better than the previous one," Gaspari said.

Slovenia is the 13th European Union state to use the euro.

Its adoption of the common currency comes five years after euro bills and coins were introduced, almost three years after Slovenia acceded to the EU, and 15 years after Slovenia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.

The euro replaces the tolar, a currency introduced in 1991 as a symbol of the tiny country's independence and an instrument aimed at cutting Belgrade's control over the Slovenian economy.

"I'm very glad Slovenia has accomplished this, I'm proud also of having taken part in this project" of entering the eurozone, Finance Minister Andrej Bajuk said on Monday as he strode to an ATM in the center of Ljubljana to withdraw 100 euros in cash.

"The biggest problem we might face is the one concerning rounding upwards of prices, but I'm convinced citizens are well informed and will show their good will," Bajuk told AFP.

To prevent a rounding upward of prices as has happened when other nations changed over to the euro, the government introduced last March the double labelling of prices, in euros and tolars, and this will remain in force for six months.

Although Monday and Tuesday are non-working days in Slovenia, 52 banks in 42 cities and towns will open for four hours each day to allow people to change their tolars into euros.

The central bank in Ljubljana was the first to allow citizens to change money between midnight and 1:00 am at a window specially opened for the ocasion.

"I received my pension (in tolars) last week and wanted to change it into euros," a pensioner said as he deposited tens of thousands of tolars at the central bank's window shortly after midnight.

One euro equals 239.64 tolars.

Cyprus and Malta are expected to follow Slovenia into the eurozone in 2008 and Slovakia is aiming to adopt the single currency in 2009.

The Czech Republic is now aiming to join the euro in 2012 and Hungary in 2013.


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