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Mired in recession, Croatia joins troubled EU

Croatia becomes the 28th member of the European Union at midnight today, a milestone that caps the Adriatic republic's recovery from war but is tinged with anxiety over the state of the economy and the bloc it joins.

EU flags fluttered from a stage in Zagreb's central square ahead of the evening's festivities, though there have been few signs of the gushing welcome that marked past expansions to ex-communist Eastern Europe.

Croatia joins the bloc just over two decades after declaring independence from federal Yugoslavia, the trigger for four years of war in which some 20,000 people died. But, facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21 percent, few Croatians are in the mood to party.

The country of 4.4 million people, blessed with a coastline that attracts 10 million tourists each year, is one of seven that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia during a decade of war in the 1990s. Slovenia was first to join the EU, in 2004, but Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are still years away.

"Back then, it looked to me as if everything should be resolved in a fortnight and we would quickly jump in (to the EU)," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told the European Parliament last week. "But then the war happened, and it didn't come to pass until today."

To get to this point, Croatia has gone through seven years of tortuous and often unpopular EU-guided reform. It has handed over more than a dozen Croatian and Bosnian Croat military and political leaders charged with war crimes by the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. It has sold shipyards, steeped in history and tradition but deeply indebted, and launched a high-profile fight against corruption that saw former prime minister Ivo Sanader jailed.

Some EU capitals remain concerned at the level of graft and organised crime.

Croatia will not yet join the 17-nation single currency zone, nor the visa-free Schengen zone.- Reuters, June 30, 2013.

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