ZAGREB, CROATIA — After five years of authoritarian rule, the winds of political change have begun blowing in Croatia. Like the unrest in nearby Belgrade, a change of government here could have dramatic effects on the Bosnia peace process.
Croatia and Serbia surround Bosnia-Herzegovina like a giant nutcracker. They each carved out ethnically pure mini-states in Bosnia during the three-year war. Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has lost much of his influence over the Bosnian Serbs, the Herzegovinian Croats depend on Croatian President Franjo Tudjman for support.
Last month, the capital, Zagreb, saw one of the largest demonstrations in Croatian history. About 100,000 residents protested their government's decision to shut down one of the few sources of independent news, Radio 101. Protesters called the move an attack on democracy.
The protests occurred while Mr. Tudjman was undergoing medical treatment in Washington. Tudjman returned Nov. 23, and spokesmen insist he is healthy but won't give details. His illness has shown "the president is mortal like everyone else," says opposition parliamentarian Bozo Kovacevic.
Public support for the once-invincible Tudjman and his party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), is at an all-time low. The HDZ lost big in local elections earlier this year, ceding control of the capital and other major cities. Presidential and general polls are set for 1997.
But Tudjman is still enormously popular among former refugees who returned to their homes after a 1995 Croatian army offensive expelled rebel Serbs from territory they had occupied since 1991.
"It's unclear who would fill the vacuum," if Tudjman left the scene, says a senior European diplomat in the region. "The party has both moderate and extremist wings, and Tudjman [has] held them together."
One worry has to do with Croatia's support of Herceg-Bosna - a Croat ministate inside Bosnia created by killing, expelling, or imprisoning Muslim and Serb residents. Its continued existence has slowed the push toward unity among all parts of Bosnia that was envisioned by the 1995 Dayton peace deal.
Although Tudjman has given lip service to the Dayton deal, he has only reluctantly moved to quell the nationalist ambitions of Bosnian Croats. But the concern is that a hard-line successor might actively encourage the Bosnian Croats. "Developments here are entirely dependent on what is happening in Croatia," says Dragan Gasic, a European Union spokesman in Herceg-Bosna.
In fact, as soon as Herceg-Bosna officials learned Tudjman was away, they blocked all moves toward unity.
"While the cat's away, the mice will play," says a Western diplomat. "In the short term, the departure of Tudjman could have terrible consequences in Bosnia."
But because the opposition backs the Dayton deal, he says, "After new elections, the situation could improve dramatically if the opposition wins."