ZAGREB, CROATIA — AS the Great Powers work to bring a full cease-fire to Bosnia, the president of neighboring Croatia - co-signer of a faltering Bosnian-Croat federation accord - is facing the first major challenge to his iron-grip rule.
Two members of his innermost circle have broken with President Franjo Tudjman over strong-arm domestic policies and an ``expansionist'' foreign policy, charging that his commitment to a United States-sponsored plan to form a Muslim and Croat federation in Bosnia is only ``cosmetic.''
Citing Mr. Tudjman's ``fatal internal and foreign policy'' in an open letter to the president, Stipe Mesic, speaker of the lower house of parliament, and Josip Manolic, speaker of the upper house, broke ranks last month with Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) to found the Independent Democrats (HND).
The main aim of Tudjman's leadership is to ``intimidate and silence the HDZ membership, government administration officials, and the Croatian political public, and to prevent democratic discussion on the current issues essential for the democratic future of Croatia,'' the letter signed by Mr. Manolic and Mr. Mesic said.
Manolic, Mesic, and Tudjman were founders of the HDZ, which rode to power on a wave of nationalism in early 1990 when Croatia broke away from the former Yugoslavia and fought a brutal war with minority Serbs who seized one third of the republic.
Since then, they have accused Tudjman of abusing his power by allowing only those loyal to him to hold key government posts, hindering freedom of the press, and ignoring minority rights.
But the HND voices the most anger over Tudjman's policy toward Bosnia - supporting separatist Bosnian Croat forces fighting against Muslim-led Bosnian government troops to divide the republic along ethnic lines.
The expansionist policy sought to annex the western Herzegovina region with Croatia, engaged forces in Bosnia to drive out the Muslim population from the territory, putting thousands of Muslims in detention centers and dragged Croatia's previous ``victim'' status through the mud.
But after the US offered monetary incentives to Croatia and put intense pressure on Tudjman to reverse his policy, he signed an agreement in February to form a Muslim and Croat federation in Bosnia with loose economic ties to Croatia.
The Washington agreement was widely believed to mark a major shift in Tudjman's policy toward Bosnia, but Manolic and Mesic claim the shift is only a nominal, cosmetic one.
They cite the current deadlock over who will be president of the new federation and the refusal to remove key executors of Croatia's expansionist policy in Bosnia as some examples of Tudjman's intransigence toward implementing the agreement.
Bosnian Croats and Muslims have been deadlocked for more than a month on who the president of the new federation should be. Tudjman supports Kresimir Zubak, current leader of the Croatian community in Bosnia. The Bosnian government supports Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic or Ivo Komsic, a Croat member of the Bosnian presidency loyal to the Sarajevo government and backed by the influential Roman Catholic Church.
Manolic was ousted from the HDZ last month when he publicly criticized fellow party members who he said were responsible for the Bosnian policy, including Defense Minister Gojko Susak, a close associate of Tudjman.
Critics accuse Manolic and Mesic of being opportunists, using the grievances raised to hoist themselves to power.
``Both Manolic and Mesic have always wanted, and always will want, to replace the president. That is the only reason they are doing this,'' Vesna Skare, spokeswoman for Tudjman, says.
``Tudjman has every intention of implementing the Washington accord. There are some problems, of course, and we are continuing the negotiations, but they are minor, and the overall road toward peace has been paved.''
Eighteen members of parliament, all but one from the governing party, have joined HND, and Manolic and Mesic have claimed they have commitments from 32 others. If true, Tudjman may lose his majority in both houses of parliament for the first time since the Croatian Democratic Union came to power in 1990.
Parliament's main chamber, the lower house, has 138 seats, and Tudjman's party holds 85. It also holds 37 of the 68 seats in the upper house.
But not all of the 32 members have come forward, and some doubt that all those the HND say are loyal to them actually exist. Manolic says the rest will come forward next week when the Croatian parliament reconvenes.
Whether or not the Independent Democrats have enough votes to drain Tudjman's monopoly on power is at issue, but analysts say their move is encouraging for democratic development in Croatia's nascent democracy.
``I'm not sure if the split is really a threat or not, but what it did do was institute a feeling of relief that some kind of hole in what appeared to be a very solid construction that controlled every day life in this country has actually been pierced,'' says Zarko Puhovski, professor of political philosophy at Zagreb University.