TOY stores in the capital of Croatia, a nation on the verge of yet another war, offer a jarring choice: model tanks, airplanes, and soldiers of both American GIs and Nazi storm troopers.
Thanks to the strong backing of the Clinton administration, Croatia rapidly is emerging as the former Yugoslavia's most powerful country. But which society Croatia - an ally of Nazi Germany in World War II and an American proxy today - will choose to emulate is far from clear.
To the embarrassment of American officials, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is threatening to widen the war in the former Yugoslavia. He is also ignoring a pattern of dozens of ethnic Serbs being murdered weeks after fighting in Bosnia and Croatia ended and the dismantling of democratic institutions just days before Sunday's parliamentary elections, say UN and US observers.
"Our feeling is that this election will not stand up well compared with 1990 and 1992 [elections]," warns Les Campbell, director of the Zagreb office of the National Democratic Institute, an American think tank promoting democratic practices in former Communist countries. "It seems to be getting progressively worse," Mr. Campbell says.
On Sept. 18, Mr. Tudjman's party rammed an election law through the parliament that established one of the world's most bizarre definitions of "eligible voter." Under the law, all ethnic Croats living abroad will be able to vote in Croatia's election.
These ethnic Croatians can apply for citizenship and can then vote in Croatia's election even if they have never lived - or even set foot in - Croatia.
The measure means that more than 290,000 generally pro-Tudjman ethnic Croats living in neighboring Bosnia will be able to dictate who holds the 12 parliament seats the new law set aside to represent Croats living abroad. Tudjman's goal in the election is to gain a dominant two-thirds majority in Croatia's 127-seat parliament, and the 12 new seats could do it.
Tudjman, who has also hired an American political consultant, is solidifying his iron grip over state-run television, his main propaganda tool, with a combination of old-style Communist tactics and an American political consultant.
At the same time, state-run Croatian TV - which is tightly controlled by Tudjman's party - has established new rules for political advertisements that bar parties from criticizing each other's platforms - something any party in power would look on with glee.
An ad submitted by the opposition Social Liberal Party was rejected two weeks ago because of its "annoying" and false messages, according to Croatian TV. The nightly news on state-run TV has become a smorgasbord of images of Tudjman and other party officials mingling with high-profile foreign diplomats or rubbing shoulders with Croatia's victorious troops.
"In a typical 40-minute newscast, you will see 28 minutes on Mr. Tudjman or his Cabinet and one minute on the opposition," says Slaven Letica, a Croatian political analyst and pollster. "The major source of Tudjman's political power is Croatian television."
Questionable campaign tactics
Zagreb's airwaves and streets are blanketed with posters and commercials for Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, which has far more money than Croatia's coalition of opposition parties. In Roman Catholic Croatia, one ad features an altered photograph of Tudjman with Pope John Paul II. The image of Catholic Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, an opponent of Tudjman who was standing with the two leaders, has been removed, according to Mr. Letica.
Another poster shows an earnest-looking Tudjman in a bow tie, an attempt, according to Letica, to play down the corruption that has beset his party. Croatia's privatization program has resulted in members of his family gaining ownership of some of the country's largest formerly state-run companies.
Twenty-four hours after Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak announced that no Croatian soldiers would be allowed to openly campaign, two Croatian war heroes appeared at a rally with Tudjman in the city of Varazdin on Wednesday.
The election, which Tudjman called, comes only weeks after Croatian troops took back almost all of the 30 percent of Croatia seized by rebel Serbs in 1991 and weeks after Croatian troops spearheaded the recapture of 1,500 square miles of Serb-held territory in Bosnia.
In a lightning August offensive that has already become folklore in Croatia, the Army routed rebel Serb forces and drove 180,000 ethnic Serbs from the country. In an apparent attempt to guarantee that no Serbs return to Croatia, more than 100 mostly elderly Serbs who decided to stay and live under Tudjman's rule have been murdered, and approximately 70 percent of abandoned Serb homes looted and burned, according to United Nations officials.
A handful of Croatians were arrested this week for the murders, looting, and arson. Tudjman has maintained that an organized campaign of removing or ethnically cleansing Serbs from Croatia is not being carried out. Only one part of Croatia, oil- and agriculture-rich Eastern Slavonia, which borders Serbia, still lies in ethnic Serb hands. Tudjman's rhetoric on that issue is growing increasingly militaristic.
Negotiations scheduled for this week between the Croatian government and rebel Serbs were canceled because the two sides could not agree on where to meet. Tudjman vowed last week that the area will be taken back by force if the issue is not resolved by the end of November, something Western observers worry could prompt an all-out war between historic rivals Croatia and Serbia.
The United States, which tacitly approved of the Croatian offensive in August, is now worried that the belligerence of Tudjman - its prodigal son in the Balkans - could scuttle the Clinton administration's peace effort. US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck yesterday urged Tudjman to act to halt the murders. The US also emphatically warned Tudjman this week not to use force to retake Eastern Slavonia.
Tudjman told a US envoy Richard Holbrooke yesterday that he will not launch an offensive to retake Serb-held land, a development that could lessen the danger of a wider Balkan war. Tudjman expressed hope for a peaceful settlement of disputed claims to Eastern Slavonia, Mr. Holbrooke said after the meeting.
"President Tudjman assured us that while he retains his right to use whatever means he thinks are necessary to deal with the problem, there will not be fighting in Eastern Slavonia," the US envoy told reporters in Zagreb.
But UN officials predict Croatia's crack armored brigades, trained by former US military officers as part of an American strategy to create a strong Croatia as a counterbalance to Serbia, may soon be rolling through Eastern Slavonia.
"The negotiations are a fraud. It's only a question of when, not if, the Croatians will take it by force," warns a senior UN military official. "They have never had any intention of accepting a Serb minority. They will kill, rape, and maim there like they have everywhere else."