AS Yugoslav Army tanks last year made the city of Vukovar look like Stalingrad - 130 shells hit the average building - the world sympathized with the cause of Croatia: The former Yugoslav republic was seen as a victim of Serbian aggression that was trying to fulfill its democratic aspirations.
Yet while Croatia has certainly suffered, with 700,000 refugees, 30 percent monthly inflation, and $15 billion in damages, its recent behavior has been far from democratic. Rather, there is evidence that the party of President Franjo Tudjman - the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ - is becoming as authoritarian as the Yugoslav Communist Party before it.
In recent weeks, the HDZ has taken control of the instruments of business, finance, and politics, and has silenced opposition voices by closing down independent media. Croatia "wants to be seen by the world as a democracy, but it doesn't want to act like one," says leading critic Slavenka Drakulic, a novelist whose five books are banned in Croatia.
The rise of the HDZ in Croatia is not a simple political shift to the right. While the right-wing Nationalist Party in Slovenia got 15 percent support in recent elections, the ultra-right-wing party in Croatia got only 5 percent. HDZ, by contrast, is "more a populist movement than a party," as one Croatian analyst put it, containing a coalition that has been kept together by the tragedy of the war and the emotion behind Croatia's new statehood.
HDZ controls 70 percent of the parliament; its members vote in a bloc. Mr. Tudjman rules virtually by decree; Josip Manolic, the second-most-powerful man in Croatia, is chief of the secret police and a close Tudjman associate.
Reminiscent of the Communist period, most Croats question HDZ only under their breath. Few critics will go on the record.
"When people say party today, that only means one thing - HDZ," says a young Croatian business executive. "The party is swallowing all initiatives. Young people today, professionals who want to get ahead, achieve something, may not have a choice but to join HDZ."
How far HDZ's power will extend, and for how long, is an open question in Zagreb. A hopeful faction believes that Tudjman has moved the country past the extreme right-wingers, many of whom come from the Bosnian region of Herzegovina.
The less-hopeful view is that HDZ and Tudjman will "grow and stay in power by using the psychological threat of war to stifle free voices and rally the troops," says a different Tudjman critic.
Everyone agrees, however, that HDZ will remain strong so long as the threat of war continues in the current UN-administered zones inside Croatia. Tudjman is highly critical of the UN's presence, and this rhetoric whips up patriotic furor among voters.
Whatever the long-term prospects, in the short term the HDZ has taken a number of steps that Western diplomats term "anti-democratic:"
* Two weeks ago, the Croatian parliament adopted a law radically stripping its own power to veto decisions by Tudjman's executive branch of government. While Parliament can veto decisions on the Constitution or electoral politics, Tudjman and his ministers have free rein in the areas of finance, budget, customs, taxes, and the daily operation of government.
* This month three ultra-right-wing parliament members from the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), including its chief, Dobroslav Paraga, will be put on trial. The men are charged with "extremist" action harmful to the state following the discovery of arms in their headquarters that HSP said were intended for Croat forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The trial has been put together like previous Communist show trials; HDZ members voted to strip the HSP of their parliamentary immunity.
As Zoran Batuvic, who helped form the Croatian Liberal Party notes: "If this government is defending democracy, it is doing it in a very unusual way. This sends the wrong message. Now everyone in Croatian politics must ask, `Am I next?' "
* Zagreb formed a Croatian Fund for Reconstruction and Development which is responsible for privatizing some 4,000 state businesses. Most of the Fund's administrators are HDZ loyalists.
* In August Zagreb closed down Danas, the last independent magazine in Croatia. Croatian television and radio are run by the recently privatized conglomerate Vjesnik, the board of which is made up of HDZ members. Vjesnik recently refused to give Danas distribution rights in the local kiosks, where about 80 percent of sales take place.
"The only real newspaper in Croatia is Slobodna Dalamatici, in Split," says Branimir Pofuk, a former music critic for Danas who is now a freelance war reporter.
Those making the case for Croatia say the real story is Tudjman's ability to block Croatian national extremists. In August of 1991, when the war began in earnest, right-wing factions nearly staged a parliamentary coup.
Leading the attempt was Mr. Paraga and his HSP party, out of which emerged the first real Croatian defense efforts, the paramilitary group known as HOS. HSP and HOS were heavily staffed and well-financed by a new "Herzegovinan elite," including current Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Shuzek, who has close ties to Mate Boban, the leader of 20,000 to 40,000 Croatian troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina. HSP's platform then and now is to wage war and partition Bosnia-Herzegovina into Serb and Croat regions, with a minimal amount of territory going to the region's Muslims.
Last summer, however, Tudjman was able to place the HOS forces under the Croatian Army. (This followed the assassination of the chief commander of HOS by police at a Croatian checkpoint.)
Tudjman has also reportedly been able to place moderate former Yugoslav Army generals like current chief of the general staff Janko Bobetko, who led the victory in Dubrovnik, in positions that make Defense Minister Shuzek less effective.
Still, Croats privately complain the about the atmosphere in their country. The official press in Croatia viciously attacks almost daily a group of about 20 writers (12 of them women) who are demanding that Croatia become more democratic.
"We are called Yugo-nostalgic, or Yugo-zombies," says Ms. Drakulic, "but what are we saying? We are saying that if we are to have democracy in this country in 10 years, we have to start talking about it and building it now."
Most of the usual channels for debate were blocked by HDZ during the war - and still are. Criticizing Croatia is still described as "traitorous" by the Tudjman government. Hence the press, the university community, and even artists, have been silent.
"We are seeing a strengthening of radicalism in Croatian public life," says leading intellectual and independent publisher Slobko Goldstein. He is planning a series of public discussions in the spring on the "basic questions": The obstacles to democracy in Croatia; future relations between Serbs and Croats; reintegration of Serb-held provinces in a peaceful way; building democratic institutions.
Foreign pressure may also cause Tudjman and the HDZ to moderate their behavior. In a recent meeting in London, Croatian Foreign Minister Zdenko Skradalo was told by Jacques Attali of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that loans from the West would not be forthcoming if Croatia did not have a free press.
Most diplomats agree the real test for the HDZ will come in three years when Tudjman is expected to step down. As one pointed out: "There is no one to replace him. No Croat politician can hold a coalition together as Tudjman can."