Croatians ready to leave cults of personality behind

After years of conservative nationalism under Tudjman, today's election front-runner is viewed as a 'regular guy.'

Boris Cvjetanovic and his wife, Markita Franulic, are the type of people their late president, Franjo Tudjman, warned of in his frequent harangues against "enemies of the state." They did not take his word as gospel, followed the opposition media, and always voted against his party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ).

But after Tudjman's death on Dec. 10, "Suddenly, we could breathe freely," says Ms. Franulic, an art historian. "When he was alive, I wasn't aware that I couldn't.... It was a pressure you couldn't see."

Mr. Cvjetanovic, a photographer, puts it this way: "If all traffic were to stop in New York City, only then would you realize all the noise the traffic made. It was like that here."

Many of their 4.8 million fellow Croatians are taking a political breath of fresh air, after firmly rejecting the HDZ last month at the ballot box. In last month's parliamentary elections, the HDZ garnered just 24 percent of the vote, while in the presidential vote, Tudjman's longtime foreign minister, Mate Granic, mustered only 21 percent support. Today presidential front-runner Stipe Mesic faces Drazen Budisa in a run-off. Croatians seem set to jettison Tudjman's nationalist, authoritarian ideology and begin the process of European integration.

Few would dispute that Tudjman was just what Croatia needed in 1990. Slobodan Milosevic had unleashed Serb nationalism across the former Yugoslavia; Tudjman, an ex-general, emerged as a potent Croat antidote.

He galvanized Croats in Croatia and Bosnia, and they were ecstatic when he declared statehood in June 1991. Wars ensued in Croatia and Bosnia. The West denounced him for turning on the Bosnian Muslims in 1993 in an apparent bid to carve out a "greater Croatia." But by late 1995, Tudjman had successfully defended Croatia's borders and liberated territory held by Serb rebels.

Tudjman was more than a war hero to most of the Croats: he was a demigod, or at least that was the message drilled home by state-run national television. The cult of personality of Franjo Tudjman was inescapable. He was revered as Otac Domovine - "The Father of the Country." Portraits of him striking a regal pose were ubiquitous - at his desk, before Croatia's red-checkerboard flag; in one of his military uniforms; or with the pope.

Meanwhile, his HDZ became entrenched, thanks to control of the media, police, Army, and courts. The opportunists who craved better business opportunities or a rank in the upper echelon of society conspicuously sang Tudjman's praises.

When Tudjman died, there was a great outpouring of grief, which his cronies clearly encouraged. "Let us not suppress our sorrow or hold back the tears for the great man," said parliament Speaker Vlatko Pavletic.

Most Croats took the hint. Storefronts throughout the capital, Zagreb, carried framed portraits of Tudjman, a black ribbon running diagonally across the upper-right-hand corner. If they had no portraits, shop owners cut out full-page photos of him from state newspapers, pasted it to cardboard, and propped it up in shop windows.

Cvjetanovic, the photographer, roamed the city recording these odd public expressions of sorrow. His exhibit opens this month in Rijeka, Croatia.

"It's absurd to have a portrait of someone who's just died next to women's underwear or bananas and pineapples," he says. "But it says something about both Tudjman and our people. Tudjman would have expected Croats to put up his picture. As for the shop owners, they either wanted to do it, or felt it was better to do it than not to do it."

Within a day of the Dec. 13 funeral, all portraits were taken down, says Cvjetanovic.

Today, it appears unlikely that Mr. Mesic, the presidential front-runner, would replace Tudjman's portraits with his own. Both he and his opponent are members of a broad center-left coalition. Mesic is viewed as a regular guy, who enjoys telling jokes and mixing with common folks.

While Croats have a long history of autocratic leaders, the mood now is distinctly anti-authoritarian, says one analyst. "Nobody elected any of these opposition candidates as a 'father figure,' " says Florian Bieber, a Balkans analyst at Central European University in Budapest. "There's no need for it anymore, someone who's above everyday politics."

Even if Mesic were to pick up some of Tudjman's habits, expect his colleagues to restrain him.

"Old-fashioned cults - of the leader, the nation, the state - do not fit with this government's intentions," says Bozo Kovacevic, a sociology professor and a newly appointed Cabinet member in charge of the environment. "We want to integrate Croatia into Europe as soon as possible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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