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Croatia celebrates its EU membership

ZAGREB, Croatia — Fireworks are ready and foreign leaders are arriving as Croatia celebrated on Sunday its entry into the European Union some 20 years after winning independence in a bloody civil war that shook the continent.

Croatia will become the 28th EU member on Monday, the bloc's first addition since Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. Croatia's membership marks a historic turning point for the small country, which went through carnage after declaring independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

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. But with the EU in deep financial turmoil and Croatia's own economy in recession for five consecutive years, the excitement has dimmed.

Thousands of people are expected to join in the celebrations across the country, including in the main square of the capital, Zagreb, where artists will perform for dozens of EU and regional leaders until midnight when big fireworks and the singing of Beethoven's Ode to Joy — EU's anthem — will mark the official entry into the bloc.

Customs posts will be removed from Croatia's borders with EU neighbors Slovenia and Hungary, while EU signs and flags will be put on its borders with non-EU states Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.

But overall, the festivities will be much more modest and less jubilant than when Bulgaria and Romania — currently EU's poorest states — became members. With the entry, Croatia — a nation of 4.2 million people — will become the third poorest country in the EU.

"There are not too many festivities because the general situation is not brilliant," Croatian President Ivo 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, and Croatia is not a member of the eurozone, and will not become a member of the eurozone until all the conditions are met."

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. "

Protest movement Occupy Croatia is planning an anti-EU march Sunday evening, saying 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 in a statement, 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, the 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.

"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.