Mixed legacy of a strongman

Croatia buries Franjo Tudjman today. Many Croats hope new elections

If there's one thing that riles most Croats, it's when foreigners lump them in with "the Balkans." They want to be seen as Western and European.

Now, with the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman late Friday night, they'll get the chance to pursue that course for their fledgling republic.

Mr. Tudjman - a prominent figure in the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent violence in Bosnia - will always be remembered by compatriots as the "father of independent Croatia" and the nationalist general who liberated Croatian territory from Serbian insurgents.

"Let us not suppress our sorrow or hold back the tears for the great man," said Interim President Vlatko Pavletic on Saturday. Thousands of Croats stood in mile-long lines over the weekend to pay their last respects. Church bells across the country will toll for 10 minutes today, as three days of public mourning end with a state funeral.

Yet, Tudjman's legacy is mixed, and many Croats feel he stayed in power too long. They blame his authoritarian style and "crony capitalism" for stunting Croatia's evolution into a market-based democracy. His actions cost the country crucial Western financial support and caused a rapid decline in its once-high living standards. To the chagrin of Western-oriented Croats, Croatia is near the back of the pack of those striving for European integration.

The leading opposition figure, Ivica Racan of the Social Democrats, says it's time for a fresh start. "Now, after Tudjman, we must try to resolve the economic and social crisis, to strengthen parliamentary democracy, and guarantee human rights and freedom of the media. Our message is: Croatia must go on," Mr. Racan told Reuters television.

Popular Foreign Minister Mate Granic is seen by analysts as most likely to win presidential elections, which must be held by Feb. 9. Croatians also are due to vote for a new parliament on Jan. 3.

Of greater interest to the West is the impact Tudjman's passing will have on the tenuous peace next door in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tudjman was one of three leaders who signed the Dayton peace accords ending the Bosnian conflict in December 1995. The other signators were Serbian [now Yugoslav] President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic.

Tudjman routinely flouted the terms of the Dayton accords. He clearly tolerated, at times even encouraged, the intransigence of Bosnian Croats who seek to create a mini-state within Bosnia. He also had been accused of harboring suspected war criminals and hindering the return of Croatia's ethnic Serb refugees.

"Most any change is for the better," says Patrick Moore, senior Balkans analyst for Radio Free Europe in Prague. "Croatians realize they're at a horrible dead end and must get back to European norms. This means a more open society and, above all, meeting their obligations to Dayton."

During World War II, Tudjman joined communist partisans fighting the Ustashe, the regime that ruled the Nazi puppet state of Croatia. After the war, he was promoted to the Yugoslav Army general staff and later became a historian. His nationalist views led to persecution by the Communist government. In 1990, he emerged on the public stage as the Croatian counterbalance to the fiery, polarizing nationalism of Serbia's Milosevic. Tudjman declared Croatia's independence in June 1991. Both leaders shrewdly manipulated their state-run media to incite ethnic hatred and fear, resulting in the deaths of some 200,000 people between 1991 and 1995.

Tudjman's crowning achievement came in military operations in May and August 1995. His forces succeeded in recapturing most of the 30 percent of Croatian territory that had been held by ethnic Serbs, sparking a mass exodus of Croatian Serbs to Serbia.

Flush with success, Tudjman set about consolidating political control. The general extended both the powers of the presidency and the reach of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), transforming the umbrella nationalist movement into a massive political party.

"HDZ was like the Communist regime," says Neven Budak, a Croatian professor of medieval studies. "Anyone who wanted a political career had to join. So in HDZ, you have everyone from almost real liberals, to right-wing radicals, to old-fashioned Communists."

Tudjman placed HDZ chums in top posts, where they gained a reputation for corruption, cronyism, and inefficiency. He also hounded the few independent voices in the media and stifled a weak and fractious opposition.

Such behavior drew scathing criticism from American and Western European officials. "The rigidity and stubbornness that was a positive quality in the early '90s became a negative quality at the end of the '90s," says a US diplomat who knew Tudjman personally.

Without his leadership, analysts anticipate the HDZ will splinter into two or three new parties, giving the opposition a real chance at power.

"Western public opinion of Croatia could turn around really quickly, if they take the right steps," says the US diplomat. "They have to learn to mediate their differences within the body politic and government, rather than by dictating solutions and enforcing them through party discipline."

Tudjman's disappearance from the scene only partly eases Balkan instability. "I think it's quite clear that [Tudjman's] nationalism contributed to the wars in the Balkans," Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the United Nations and a veteran Balkan peace negotiator, told CNN. "But I do not consider him the animating factor in the Balkan wars."

That distinction belongs to Milosevic.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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