Croatia's Growing Pains

On its independence day, a look around the country's lingering ethnic tensions.

Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on October 8, 1991, now a national holiday. Since then, the country shrunk from 4.7 million people down to 4.28 million. The Croatian Bureau of Statistics anticipates the population will hit 3.1 million by 2051. 

Much of that can be attributed to the Croatian War of Independence, where Croats loyal to the new government fought off Yugoslavian and Serbian forces. By the war's end in 1995, predominantly Serb areas in the country had seen hundreds of thousands displaced; many never returned. Today, the country is the most ethnically homogenous of the six countries that once formed Yugoslavia. 90.4 percent of the population is classified as Croat, 4.4 percent Serbian.

While peace has since prevailed, tensions remain. A new law requires bilingual signage in any area where more than one third of the local population belongs to an ethnic minority group, leading Croat protesters in one town to tear down its new Serb Cyrillic signs. As for its economy, Croatia is facing some of its worst economic conditions since the end of the war, facing five straight years now in a recession and 21 percent unemployment. It joined the European Union earlier this year.

Below, Reuters photographer Antonio Bronic shows us what life around Croatia, from its lingering ethnic tensions to its UNESCO protected tourist sites, looks like:

A woman lights a candle in front of riot policemen during a protest against signs in Serb Cyrillic script placed in the city of Vukovar September 3, 2013. Several hundred Croat protesters tore down the signs that were put up in the city devastated during the independence war with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, state radio said. The signs were put up in Vukovar in line with a law in the newest European Union member that makes bilingual signs mandatory in any area where more than one third of the local population belongs to an ethnic minority group. Vukovar was reduced to rubble during a three-month siege by Yugoslav and Serbian forces in late 1991. Though rebuilt, the town remains poor, with high unemployment and ethnic tensions. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
Vojvoda (duke) Ante Vucic, a commander of alkars, receives blessings from his mother before the Alka competition in the town of Sinj in southern Croatia August 4, 2013. The Sinjska alka is an equestrian competition which has been held every first Sunday in the month of August in town of Sinj, Croatia since 1715, commemorating the victory over Ottoman Turkish administration. It consists of an equestrian competition, in which various horsemen attempt to aim their lances at a hanging metal ring (alka) at full gallop. In 2010 it has been inscribed in UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Europe. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
People line the streets for Alka early in the morning in Sinj August 4, 2013. Alka is a horseback riding tournament which has been held every August in the Croatian town of Sinj since 1715, commemorating the victory over Ottoman Turkish administration. The tournament is named after the ring, Alka, which the horseback rider has to hit with his spear. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
People walk on Ilica street in Zagreb's dowtown July 20, 2013. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Croatian border police officers monitor the border with Montenegro in Vitaljina, south Croatia, April 29, 2013. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
A ship's controls are seen on fisherman Danilo Latin's ship in Savudrija June 24, 2013. Most of the 3,700 fishermen who ply their trade in Croatia's eastern Adriatic fear that the country's accession to the European Union and strict new laws and regulations that come with it, may drive the last nail into their coffin. Croatia's Adriatic is small and relatively shallow and fishermen use traditional nets that are not compliant with the Common Fishing Policy, modeled mostly on fishing in the Atlantic. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
Workers of DTR (Domestic Machine Factory) strike and hold banners in front of a DTR store in Zagreb's downtown June 10, 2013. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, champagne flowed and thousands of cheering people poured into the streets to mark a seminal moment in their emergence from Communism. Croatia's July 1 accession finds the country, and the EU itself, in far more somber mood. The union's 28th member is in the grip of its worst recession since fighting its way free of Yugoslavia in the 1991-95 war. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
Participants dressed like a wedding couple march during a pride parade in Zagreb June 15, 2013. About 15,000 participants attended Zagreb's 12th Gay Pride event, local media said. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Tourists pull their luggage as they walk on Stradun street in Croatia's UNESCO protected medieval town of Dubrovnik April 29, 2013. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
People look at a car with a sign in Croatia's UNESCO protected medieval town of Dubrovnik April 28, 2013. The barren Srdj plateau overlooking the mediaeval city of Dubrovnik is a real estate developer's dream, offering breath-taking views of Croatia's top tourist destination. The sign reads, "go out on referendum, Sunday April 28, 2013 from 7 to 19 hours. Srdj is yours." (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Muslims walk near Rijeka's new mosque May 4, 2013. The newly opened Islamic Center in Rijeka will become the new central place of worship and gathering of 10,000 to 12,000 citizens of the Islamic faith who are currently living in and around Rijeka. Due to its architectural, construction and cultural values, Rijeka's mosque has been declared to be possibly one of the most beautiful mosques in Europe by local media. The mosque, featuring exquisite minarets measuring 79 feet high, cost an estimated $13.1 million to construct. This is the first mosque built in the Croatian Adriatic city since the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire, and the third in Croatia in addition to others in Zagreb and Gunji, according to local Muslims. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
A general view of a protest at Zagreb's main square April 7, 2013. Around 20,000 Croats, mostly war veterans, rallied on Sunday on the central square in the capital Zagreb to protest against a plan to introduce signs in the Cyrillic alphabet used by Serbs. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Croatian Serb Sava Knezevic, 65, poses in front of his house that was destroyed during the Croatian war, in Knin, February 19, 2013. Knezevic has been living in an old barn next door to the house for 17 years, while waiting for it to be rebuilt. He ekes out a meagre living selling discarded plastic bottles and his sole possessions are a small bed and a wood burning stove. After the Croatian war ended, Croatian authorities promised the remaining or returning Serbs that they would be given equal assistance in rebuilding war-damaged properties. But 18 years after the conflict, many are still making do with basic or temporary living arrangements. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Sava Knezevic, 65, walks through his house that was destroyed during the Croatian war, in Knin, February 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
Police inspect a crime scene after an explosion in Zagreb January 23, 2013. At 2.30 a.m., the explosion took place in Zagreb's main square but no-one was hurt, according to local media. The incident was the third explosion in Zagreb in two weeks. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
Children play with a snow sledge in Zagreb December 9, 2012. The Croatian capital Zagreb was under 16 inches of snow after the heaviest one-day snowfall the city had seen since 1955. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 
Croatian lighthouse keeper Ante Franceskini cleans the light of Tajer lighthouse on Sestrice Vela island November 14, 2012. For the past two years 59 year-old Franceskini, married with two daughters, has been the Tajer lighthouse keeper, rotating the role with his brother Gozo every 15 days. Since the 1990's the 48 lighthouses along Croatia's rocky coastline have been automated with only 17 retaining keepers to maintain and clean the lighthouse and the surrounding island. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)
People walk at cemetery Mirogoj during All Saints Day in Zagreb, November 1, 2012. Catholics mark All Saints Day by visiting the cemeteries and graves of deceased relatives and friends. (REUTERS/Antonio Bronic) 

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