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Islands, sports and spotted dogs: Five facts about Croatia

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Zagreb (AFP)

Croatia goes to the polls Sunday to elect a president who will serve as head of state of the Adriatic nation, which joined the EU in 2013.

Here are five things to know about the former Yugoslav republic that became independent in 1991:

- People coming in and out -

Like many of its Balkan neighbours, Croatia is struggling to keep young people at home as huge numbers pack their bags for wealthier European capitals.

The exodus could lead to a "demographic collapse" with birthrates also plunging, warned demographer Stjepan Sterc.

Since its EU entry in 2013 about 190,000 people have left, official data shows, though analysts say the real number is likely closer to 300,000.

Most leave for better wages and job opportunities though many also cite widespread graft at home.

At the same time Croatia is also taking a hardline stance against migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia who have been trying to enter its territory through Bosnia.

Most hope to slip through Croatia and continue on to Western Europe.

But Croatian border police are routinely accused of violently pushing migrants back to Bosnia, though Zagreb denies all allegations.

- Sports incubator -

The country of 4.2 million people boasts an impressive number of sporting stars.

Its footballers made a historic run to the World Cup final last year under the leadership of captain Luka Modric, before losing 4-2 to France.

The water polo squad and national handball team have both scooped up world champions titles and Olympic golds.

Tennis legend Goran Ivanisevic and current star Marin Cilic, as well as high jump champion Blanka Vlasic, have also made names for themselves internationally.

And although Croatia has practically no ski resorts unlike neighbouring Slovenia, it boasts Alpine ski champions such as sister and brother act Janica and Ivica Kostelic.

- 1,000 islands -

Croatia is blessed with a stunning coastline sprinkled with more than 1,000 islands and islets.

More than 20 million tourists descend on the country annually, in an industry that generates a fifth of Croatia's gross domestic product.

However, some of Croatia's most famous sites, like the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik have become threatened with "overtourism" as cruisers haul in huge crowds.

The UNESCO heritage site has seen a surge of visitors since scenes from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" were filmed there starting in 2011.

Other tourist draws include the Istria hinterland, known for its truffles, Velebit mountain, and the Krka and Plitvice national parks.

Croatia is also the country of "prsut", a prosciutto ham that became the first national product to obtain the label of controlled European origin.

-Dalmatians -

The white dogs with brown or black spots are one of Croatia's most universally known and beloved exports.

Of Croatia's seven native dog breeds, the Dalmatians have won global fame thanks to Walt Disney's animated film "101 Dalmatians", first released in 1961.

Originating from the coastal region of Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea, these friendly dogs were first depicted in paintings and church chronicles from the 16th to 18th centuries, before becoming sought-after pets hundreds of years later.

- Carnivorous coins -

An EU member since 2013, Croatia is not in the eurozone, though Zagreb hopes to adopt the currency by 2023 at the earliest.

In the meantime it deals in the kuna, which was adopted in 1994 during the independence war that saw Croatia break away from former Yugoslavia.

Kuna means marten, a weasel-like carnivore whose fur was used as currency in the Middle Age.

The animal's image graces the face of many Kuna coins.

The choice, however, stirred controversy as the kuna was also the currency use by the country's pro-Nazi Ustasha regime during World War II.

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