by Stephen Schwartz
A NEW ERA in Balkan history dawned on December 12, 1999, when Franjo Tudjman died. A former Communist general, Tudjman had shepherded Croatia to independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and so considered himself the "father of the nation." Croatia had not been independent for centuries.
During World War II, it had been an Axis puppet, the putative Independent State of Croatia. But this was nothing to be proud of. Led by an ultranationalist clique, the Ustasha, it sacrificed its Jews to Nazi savagery, turned over the Dalmatian coast to Mussolini, and slaughtered its Serbian minority.
Not surprisingly, these policies drove more than 200,000 Croats to join the Communist Partisans under Tito, who was himself half Croat, half Slovene. But it is the brutalities inflicted by the Croatian fascists that non-Croats have tended to remember.
Tudjman, who emerged as semidictator of Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia, did little to improve the image of his country. His army recovered territory seized by Serbs in the 1991-95 war, but gained its own reputation for ethnic cleansing. Croat commanders were summoned to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Worst of all, Tudjman conspired with Serbian president and Balkan kingpin Slobodan Milosevic to partition Bosnia-Hercegovina. Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović said he felt as though he faced "a choice between lung cancer and AIDS."
Tudjman was not a programmatic anti-Semite, according to leading Croatian Jewish intellectuals, but he was certainly a crank. His weird writings minimize human suffering under the Croatian fascists with arguments over numbers, as if statistics were the issue, instead of genocide.
Tudjman sought to reconcile the Ustasha and Partisan traditions, and in this he claimed as his model Francisco Franco, the Spanish caudillo, who supposedly had brought the two sides together after Spain's civil war. But he failed to grasp the implications of embracing Franco. When the Spaniard Carlos Westendorp was European boss of postwar Bosnia-Hercegovina, Tudjman is said to have greeted him with the declaration, "I greatly admire your General Franco," to which Westendorp reportedly replied, "That is too bad. I hated Franco."
Despite these proclivities, Tudjman was useful to Washington. He put his army at the disposal of Clintonite diplomacy, and U.S. leaders tried to overlook his faults. When his defense minister, an unreconstructed Ustasha apologist named Gojko Šušak, died in 1998, one of the eulogists and pallbearers at his funeral was none other than his former American counterpart William Perry.
When Tudjman himself died in December, the Croats celebrated, not by drinking long-hoarded champagne, as the Spaniards had at Franco's passing, but by turning out in their millions in the January 3 parliamentary elections to crush his political machine, the Croatian Democratic Union. Tudjman may have been the father of the nation, but the Croats were no longer children.
Their disillusionment was not difficult to fathom. Tudjman had squandered state funds on a presidential guard in fancy dress and elaborate symbols and banners. Croats seem addicted to flags; every city, county, party, union, and club has its own. But flags could not fill stomachs. Workers grumbled over late paychecks. People living on pensions starved. The value of the currency, the kuna, plunged.
Tudjman's party was bested at the polls by an incongruous alliance of former Communists, now styled Social Democrats, under Ivica Račan, and serious free marketeers in the Social Liberal party, led by Dražen Budiša. In Croatia itself, the coalition took 73 seats, Tudjman's machine 39, with the results for 5 seats representing Croats outside the country in dispute.
Despite this victory, the coalition seemed suspect to longtime anti-Tudjman activists. Račan is wedded to impractical leftist fantasies, such as the inclusion in the cabinet of unpaid volunteers, while Budiša did jail time under the Communists. And until recently, the two factions cordially despised each other. As Croatia's rambunctious opposition paper Feral Tribune put it, "There was a time when Budiša was still a pronounced anti-Communist, and every connection with reformed Communists was an incomprehensible, almost obscene act for him, while to Ivica Račan everything about Budiša's party smelled of 'rotten liberalism."
Under the pact that joined these disparate parties, Račan had the advantage: He had slyly chosen the prime minister's slot, leaving Budiša to run for president in the election slated for January 24. But after the coalition's exhilarating victory in the parliamentary elections, the voters took stock -- and demonstrated their political maturity. Suddenly faced with the prospect of handing both leadership posts to a single slate, albeit a potentially unstable one, they started thinking that Budiša might not be the best choice for president after all.
"I do not consider Račan a dangerous man," commented Otto Lukačević, a Croat media adviser who commutes between homes and jobs in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, and who was never a Communist. "But I consider the concentration of power dangerous. Croatia needs a balance."
Almost as soon as the opposition victory in the parliamentary elections was announced, Lukačević said his vote for president would go to Stipe Mesić, a 65-year-old former Communist who served as the last president of the old Yugoslavia. Mesić leads the Croatian People's party, which, along with three other minor parties, did poorly in the parliamentary elections, despite its intellectual prestige. And when the votes were counted after the presidential runoff on February 7, Mesić was Croatia's new president.
This may or may not have been the best possible outcome. Budiša would have represented a cleaner break with the past, especially in economic matters. But he was personally distant, a librarian by profession, and lacked the common touch; he had the right ideas but the wrong style. Mesić knows how to reach the man in the street; his slogan -- "Have coffee with the president" -- sounds silly to outsiders, but worked for Croats. In addition, some observers, especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina, worried that Budiša might be slow to shake off the legacy of Croatian nationalism. Mesić is seen as a sincere friend of Bosnia-Hercegovina, willing to stop Croatia's meddling across the border.
With Račan prime minister and Mesić president, former Communists are still in control. But they are younger men than Tudjman and more practical. They have assumed a great responsibility. If they set the right example, they can make their country prosperous and admired. They can also help rebuild Bosnia-Hercegovina -- and possibly even point chaotic Serbia toward salvation.