Croats braved biting winds and icy roads to vote overwhelmingly against the nationalist regime of the late President Franjo Tudjman, who led the country to independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 but also brought the country economic hardship and international isolation.
All three main candidates in the Jan. 24 presidential race eschewed the rhetoric typical under Mr. Tudjman - who ranted about internal and external "enemies" and impugned the patriotism of any Croat who would not vote for him - to focus on the real needs of Croatia: economic reform and democratization.
Official results released the next day gave a commanding 41 percent to centrist candidate Stipe Mesic, who once served as a member of Yugoslavia's collective presidency. In contrast with Tudjman's fondness for gaudy military uniforms, Mr. Mesic won over the public with a folksy, avuncular persona highlighted by the campaign slogan, "Have coffee with the president."
He fell short of the 50 percent needed for victory, however, and will face second-place Drazen Budisa in a Feb. 7 runoff. Mr. Budisa, co-leader of a left-leaning coalition that won parliamentary elections earlier this month, took 28 percent. In third place, with 21 percent, was Mate Granic, Tudjman's longtime foreign minister.
In a Zagreb cafe, two groups of older men, all refugees, sit and discuss the issue that most affected their lives - and their votes - nationalism.
At one table are Bosnian Croats, at the other Bosnian Muslims. All were expelled in 1992 from Posavina, in northern Bosnia, by Serb neighbors. The men have not been allowed to return, for the area now lies within Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb republic.
That's why they all voted against the candidate presented by the party of Tudjman, who died on Dec. 10.
"We have been impatient for change for so long," says Ivan, a Bosnian-Croat schoolteacher who declined to give his last name. "Nationalism has to be abandoned.... It's the only solution."
Under Tudjman, Croatia refused to comply with key conditions of the Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian war in late 1995. Foremost was the return of some 300,000 ethnic Serbs and the extradition of alleged Croatian war criminals to The Hague tribunal in the Netherlands. Washington and Brussels also insist that Zagreb sever ties to the Bosnian Croats, which have bolstered their hard-line stance toward the government in Sarajevo.
In this week's ballot and the Jan. 3 parliamentary elections, Croatians voted in record numbers for a break with Tudjman's policies, demonstrating a consensus that foreign investment and Western integration are necessary to reverse the country's slide. Living standards continue to deteriorate, unemployment is at 20 percent, and corruption is rampant.
Encouraging for the West has been the conciliatory rhetoric of Mesic, Budisa, and Prime Minister Ivica Racan, who will head what is expected to be a six-party coalition government.
Mesic has signaled his willingness to welcome back Serb refugees who fled Croatia during the 1991-95 wars that broke Yugoslavia apart. Ivan and others hope a Serb return would allow them to go home as well.
Still, Western diplomats and financial institutions expect Zagreb to turn words into deeds before the funds begin to flow. "We want them to demonstrate a real resolve to change," says a diplomat in Zagreb who declined to be identified. "We have a list of what we feel can be changed right away, within six months. None of these things will be a surprise."
Some Croats hold out hope the new political elite also will take the opportunity to instill democratic values.
"The vast majority of the public is still not concerned with classic civil liberties, but their own economic problems," says Borislav Grgin, a historian and member of the tiny Liberal Party, one of the new coalition partners. "We must foster the idea that democratization is important for ourselves, and not something the West is forcing upon us."
It is Croats like Zdenko, a street musician out playing Dalmatian love songs despite a bone-chilling wind, who turned on Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), as too arrogant, corrupt, and mafia-connected to lead them into Europe and prosperity. "We knew that after the [Bosnian] war, things couldn't be improved right away," he says, strumming to keep his fingers warm. "We kept hoping and hoping, but the situation never got better. Now it's time for a change."
Without Tudjman's leadership, the HDZ is expected to splinter into center-right and far-right parties. But uprooting the thousands of loyalists who occupy top posts throughout society will be a wrenching process. The 200 families of the "HDZ nobility" reportedly control most of the economy. "How to change the system without revolutionary methods ... will be one of the key questions of the transition," says Davor Gjenero, a political analyst in Zagreb.
This bodes well for neighboring Bosnia, where leaders of the Croat, Serb, and Muslim communities continue to obstruct peace from taking root.
"If the nationalist pressure goes down on one side, it becomes more difficult for the Bosnian Muslims, for example, to argue that all Croats are evil," says Florian Bieber, a Balkans analyst at Central European University in Budapest. "If the Croats become more moderate, it removes an excuse for why they can't cooperate."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society