Croatia's Tudjman Sits Atop A Seething Political Stewpot

The public is angered by war failures, economic troubles

CROATIAN President Franjo Tudjman has been wrestling with a deep political crisis for the past three months, and there are few signs that his predicament is getting any better.

Mr. Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is riven by infighting, and an opposition boycott has nearly halted the national parliament, producing forecasts of early elections.

Closely bound up in the crisis are the deadlocked international efforts to broker peace between Zagreb and minority Serb rebels holding a fourth of Croatia, and the future of the United States-brokered reconciliation between Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croats and Muslims.

Tudjman's personal power does not appear threatened, Western diplomats and political analysts say, because no other politician can rival the popularity he retains for leading Croatia to independence from former Yugoslavia three years ago.

But there is a growing view here, supported by opinion polls, that an alliance of mainstream opposition parties could beat the HDZ if elections for the parliament, or Sabor, are called ahead of schedule. ``Public support for the HDZ has been going down for nearly a year, and it is going to continue,'' says Slaven Letica, Tudjman's former national security adviser.

Among other things, Mr. Letica says, the public is irate over the government's failure to regain rebel Serb-held areas, a high cost of living, low wages, tax hikes, and rampant official corruption.

Ironically, the main issue that provoked the crisis - Tudjman's Bosnia policy - does not appear to be a major public concern.

Tudjman had backed Bosnian Croat extremists who sought to divide Bosnia and join to Croatia a self-declared state anchored on the Croatian nationalist hotbed of Western Herzegovina.

The policy split the HDZ, with a handful of moderates forming a new party, the Croatian New Democrats. Tudjman retained control of the Upper House of the Sabor, but his grip on the more powerful Lower House was seriously shaken.

The crisis grew in May when the opposition declared an indefinite boycott of the Sabor after the HDZ broke an accord on replacing the two parliamentary chairmen. The two also refused to resign their positions and last weekend were barred by police from entering their offices.

The boycott has nearly halted activity in the Sabor. Although the HDZ retains a 76-seat majority in the 140-seat lower house, it has serious problems gathering the 70-member quorum for sessions.

Western diplomats and political analysts say that a power struggle is now raging inside the HDZ between the moderate technocrats, who run the government, and the right-wingers who control the party apparatus and finances.

Some analysts believe Tudjman may call elections before the end of the year to re-establish undisputed HDZ control of the Sabor and restore intraparty discipline.

They say he has already begun a pre-election drive to boost the HDZ's popularity, including a propaganda blitz that blames the government's inability to regain control of rebel Serb-held areas on a weak, ineffective United Nations.

As part of the campaign, UN officials say Croatian authorities have encouraged week-long blockades by Croatian refugees of road crossings by which UN peacekeepers transport humanitarian aid into rebel Serb-controlled areas.

Tudjman has also played to renewed demands for military action against the Serbs following last month's collapse of international peace talks, saying he will not renew the 14,000-member UN Protection Force's mandate when it expires Sept. 30. ``There is a chance that the government will engage in limited military operations to boost its [election] chances,'' warns Mate Mestrovic, a leader of the opposition Croatian Social Liberal Party.

Other analysts disagree. They claim Tudjman will not risk the new international goodwill, economic aid, and diplomatic support he has won through making peace with Bosnia's Muslims.

``I don't think Tudjman is going to give up the international status and prestige that he fought so hard to acquire,'' a Western diplomat says.

Instead of calling new elections, these analysts see his rhetoric as a tactic to regain public confidence, restore HDZ unity, and pressure the UN into taking stronger steps to help him reassert Zagreb's authority over the rebel Serb-controlled Krajina region.

But Letica warns that the crisis will worsen this fall, when Tudjman is expected to ask the Sabor to ratify a treaty establishing the confederation between Croatia and Bosnia. The HDZ, Letica says, does not have the two-thirds lower house majority needed for ratification, and Tudjman cannot look to the mainstream opposition for votes because it opposes confederation.

But confederation was the chief condition set by the HDZ's right-wing for acceding to Muslim-Croat reconciliation in Bosnia. The failure of the confederation vote would almost certainly mean more trouble not only for Tudjman, but for Bosnia as well.

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