ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Fireworks lit the sky and festive crowds gathered on the streets to mark Croatia's entry Monday into the European Union, a major milestone some 20 years after the country won independence in a bloody civil war that shook the continent.
Croatia became the 28th EU member, the bloc's first addition since Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. Though enthusiasm for the country's achievement has been dampened by the EU's financial turmoil, it is a historic turning point for the small Balkan nation of 4.2 million, which endured years of carnage after declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
"As midnight struck, your country crossed an important threshold," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told the cheering crowd in Croatia's capital Zagreb. "It will change the life of this nation for good."
"In the history of a nation, there are a few events such as this one," Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic said. "The accession of Croatia to the European Union is confirmation that each one of us belongs to the European democratic and cultural set of values."
A decade back, when Croatia started negotiating the entry, the once war-torn country was overjoyed at the prospect of becoming a member of the European elite. With the EU in deep financial trouble and Croatia's own economy in recession for five consecutive years, the excitement has dimmed.
Thousands of people waving small EU and Croatian flags nonetheless joined celebrations across the country, including in Zagreb's main square. There, artists performed for some 100 visiting foreign leaders until midnight when big fireworks and the singing of Beethoven's Ode to Joy — EU's anthem — marked the official entry into the bloc.
Customs posts were removed from Croatia's borders with EU neighbors Slovenia and Hungary, while EU signs and flags were put on its borders with non-EU states Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.
The festivities were much more modest and less jubilant than when Bulgaria and Romania — currently EU's poorest states — became members. With the entry, Croatia becomes the third poorest country in the EU.
"There are not too many festivities because the general situation is not brilliant," Josipovic told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "We have to develop our economy, take care of those people who are jobless now, and there is no time and money for big celebrations."
With an unemployment rate hovering at around 20 percent, plunging living standards, endemic corruption among its political elite and its international credit rating reduced to junk, many Croats are not in the mood to celebrate.