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.
Some economists have warned that Croatia could seek an EU financial bailout as soon as it becomes a member. But Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic rejected those claims, saying that the country would qualify for bailouts only if it is a member of the eurozone, a separate 17-country group that uses the EU's common currency, the euro.
"Croatia is not a member of the eurozone, and will not become a member of the eurozone until all the conditions are met," she said.
President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz called Croatia's accession a "historic day."
"EU membership will offer no magic solution to the crisis," he said in a statement. "But it will help to lift many people out of poverty and modernize the economy."
Pro-EU voices in Croatia note that joining the bloc means Croatians could find jobs in more prosperous EU countries, that their country could attract more foreign investment, and that the EU's leadership in Brussels could help keep widespread corruption and economic mismanagement in check.
But protest movement Occupy Croatia argued in a statement that "the European Union is not a solution to our problems."
"The entry into the European Union is an economic genocide over the people living in our country," the group said, blasting the EU as a "union tailored for rich corporations and their politicians."
The EU is in the grips of a recession, with many countries struggling to stimulate growth while grappling with a debt crisis that has led governments to slash spending and raise taxes. The EU countries account for 60 percent for Croatia's exports, which has sent the Balkan country's economy into a steady decline.
"It's important that we remember that Croatia is joining at the strangest time for the European Union in history," said Paul Stubbs, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Economics in Zagreb. He said Croatians "might see some increased prices, some increased competition, I wouldn't expect some huge increase in investment overnight."
But for many Croatians, pragmatism is winning out.
"We really had no choice," said Nino Vidic, a Zagreb resident. "Croatia is a small country, and logically as a Catholic country, we strive toward the West."
Associated Press writers Jovana Gec and Raf Casert contributed.