Croatia after Tudjman

The death of the Croatian leader marks the end of an era in the Balkans and leaves the future of the country, and the region, uncertain.

Published December 13, 1999 10:49AM (EST)

Once the West's most strategically important ally in the Balkans, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was buried in Zagreb on Monday with few senior Western officials present to pay their last respects, a sign of the mixed legacy he leaves. Revered by Croats for leading the former Yugoslav republic to independence in 1991, Tudjman is faulted for his hard-line nationalist positions that have prevented Croatia from being fully accepted into Europe and NATO and from achieving economic prosperity.

Tudjman died early Saturday after a long illness with stomach cancer. He was 77. His death comes three weeks before Croatian parliamentary elections, scheduled to be held Jan. 3, and will now trigger new presidential elections to be held by February. In the interim, Croatian parliament speaker Vlatko Pavletic is serving as acting president of the nation of 5 million people.

In the years since the Bosnian and Croatian wars ended in 1995, the West has grown estranged from Croatia, in large part because Tudjman clung to mono-ethnic policies. In particular, Tudjman made it difficult for Serbian refugees to return to their homes in Croatia, balked at turning over evidence and Croatian war crimes suspects to the U.N. international war crimes tribunal, and obstructed Western efforts to nudge Bosnia's Muslims and Croats together into a federation.

Western diplomats say Croatia has paid for Tudjman's hard-line nationalism in the post-war.

"Under a different leadership this country could be a lot better off than it is now," said one Western diplomat formerly posted to Croatia who asked not to be named. "Vis-`-vis integration with the European Union and with NATO Partnership for Peace, Croatia is way behind other countries in the region, except for Bosnia and Serbia. And there's no reason why it had to be this way. If Tudjman had led the country in the right direction, Croatia could be as integrated in Europe" as the neighboring former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, which is now slated for both E.U. and NATO membership.

The diplomat said that until 1995, Tudjman perceived the U.S. as a strategic partner and ally. "But very quickly after the war ended, Croatia's unwillingness to meet expectations soured our relationship. In 1997, international financial institutions cut off relations with Croatia for its failure to help out on the war crimes issue."

Another Western official who focuses on Bosnia says that Tudjman and his hardline political party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have intervened in Bosnia, by giving financial and military support to hardline Bosnian Croats who have resisted becoming integrated into a multi-ethnic Bosnia.

Tudjman's death will "open up new opportunities for progress in implementing the Dayton agreement," the official said in an interview Sunday. "We expect the HDZ to circle the wagon for a time. But before long, the drop in financial assistance from Croatia to the Bosnian Croats will take its toll," and Bosnian Croat moderates might show more willingness to engage with their Bosnian Muslim counterparts.

"In the medium- to long-term President Tudjman's death creates significant opportunities for greater respect for human rights in Croatia, including greater media freedom, independence of the judiciary and separation of powers, the better treatment for Croatian Serb citizens and progress on the return of Serbian refugees," said Benjamin Ward, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "In the short-term, the death of the president may benefit the ruling HDZ party in the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 3, and possibly in the presidential elections that must occur before Feb. 9. The impact of his death on politics in Bosnia and on Croatia's cooperation with the ICTY is less clear."

Tudjman's HDZ party has been losing popularity in recent years, and was expected to lose parliamentary elections in January. But the Croatian political opposition is fragmented, and analysts say it is not clear if the opposition will be able to decide on a single candidate to run in presidential elections against HDZ's candidate.

Western governments favor Croatia's foreign minister, Mate Granic, a member of the HDZ, who is nonetheless considered a moderate. Granic faces opposition from both hard-liners within the ranks of the HDZ, as well as from two major opposition political blocks. Recent polls show one opposition coalition made up of the Liberal Party and the Croatian Peoples Party drawing 35-38 percent of the votes, HDZ drawing 25-30 percent of the vote, and a four-party opposition coalition drawing some 10-14 percent of the vote. An extreme right party, the Croatian Party of Rights, is expected to draw 5 percent of the vote.

Analysts say HDZ has dropped in the polls because Croats are frustrated with the country's stagnant economy and with the party's corruption.

"The most important issues are economic," said the western diplomat formerly posted to Zagreb. "Unemployment is a big one, pensions are a big one. Corruption hurt the HDZ. The average wage in Croatia is just $400 per month, but the economy is smaller than it was in 1991."

Croatia's capital city Zagreb shows how close and yet far away the country is from achieving its dream of becoming "Europe." Zagreb's surface beauty and prosperity -- freshly painted Austro-Hungarian architecture, balconies with fresh flowers, new Mercedes and Western automobiles and Viennese cafes full of well-dressed elderly, mask the fact that most Croats have very little disposable income.

Once Croatia earned millions of dollars from Western European tourists attracted to its splendid Adriatic coastline and medieval cities of Dubrovnik and Split. But the wars that plagued the Balkans have almost destroyed Croatia's tourism industry, even as they have entirely restored Dubrovnik. This past spring, NATO bombed Montenegro, just down the coast from Dubrovnik, keeping tourists away for another summer.

One of the most hopeful opportunities presented by the end of the hard-line Tudjman era is that it will help bring moderates to power not just in Zagreb but also in neighboring Serbia.

"With both Tudjman and Milosevic around, it has been a hard slog," conceded the Western diplomat involved with trying to bring ethnic groups together in Bosnia. With Tudjman gone, "we want to isolate Milosevic and work for his potential removal."

"Tudjman had two dreams," former U.S. ambassador to Zagreb Peter Galbraith told the BBC Monday. "One for an independent Croatia with all its territory; the second for Croatia to be accepted as part of Europe. In his life, Tudjman achieved the first goal. His death will make possible the second dream."

Tudjman's death is the latest reminder of how power in the Balkans has changed since the Dayton peace accords were signed in 1995. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has now been officially demonized and indicted on war crimes and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has been accused of wide-spread fraud in the handling of foreign aid to Bosnia. Tudjman holds a prominent role in the history of the former Yugoslavia.

Although he fought with Tito's Partisans against the Croatian fascists in World War II and became the youngest general in Tito's Yugoslavia, Tudjman would later become a vehement Croatian nationalist, criticized for his historical writings that vastly downplayed the number of Jews and Serbs killed at Croatia's World War II Jasenovac concentration camp.

Tudjman benefited by the perception in the West that he was the lesser evil compared with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose Serbian forces benefited by the acquisition of the military hardware of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). As Serbian forces and paramilitaries conquered large swathes of territory in Croatia and Bosnia in an effort to carve a "Greater Serbia" out of the remains of Yugoslavia, they brutally expelled and killed Croats and Muslims. Some 8,000 Croatians were killed, and 200,000 were forced to flee, as Serbian forces conquered a quarter of Croatian territory. Another 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia.

In the calculus of the Balkans wars, Tudjman was perceived not only as a lesser evil than Milosevic but as a necessary one, the only viable bulwark against Milosevic's genocidal campaign to wipe out Muslims and Croats in the territory he claimed as Greater Serbia. In 1994, Washington sent retired U.S. military officers to train Tujdman's army how to wipe out Serbian gains. In addition, Washington's ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, secretly negotiated a deal by which arms were shipped to the terribly outgunned Bosnian Muslims via Croatia, which took a cut of the arms -- this in violation of an international arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia which disadvantaged the landlocked Bosnian Muslims.

In 1995, Tudjman's U.S.-trained Croatian army conducted Operation Storm, the wildly successful and horribly brutal military operation that rooted Serbian forces from Croatia, forced hundreds of thousands of Serbian civilians to flee for their lives, and ultimately forced Milosevic to the negotiating table.

But Operation Storm, in which Croatian commanders strategically used terror to force Croatia's entire Serbian minority to flee, would later come to haunt Tudjman and his generals, who came under scrutiny from the U.N. international war crimes tribunal this year for atrocities against civilians.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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