The Guardian - Tudjman's death brings faint hope of Balkan peace

Chris Bird in Belgrade and Nick Thorpe in Zagreb

Monday December 13, 1999

Western governments are hoping that as the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman is buried in the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb today, the bloody politics of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans can be laid to rest.

Tudjman's death at the age of 77 marks a potential political sea change, not just for Croatia's 4.5m population but also for the Balkans as a whole.

Yesterday, more than 13,000 people queued at the presidential palace to pay their last respects by the coffin of the man who led the country to independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Yet many are quietly glad he is gone. As parliamentary elections on January 3 approach, Tudjman's hardline nationalist party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is trailing behind the opposition. A presidential election must also be held within 60 days.

Tudjman's death also comes at a time when the European Union is questioning itself over its own strategy towards the former Yugoslavia.

"It was a general assessment among members of the European Council that the situation there is worrisome and international coordination is not working satisfactorily in terms of aid efforts," said Paavo Lipponen, the Finnish prime minister at the EU summit in Helsinki this weekend.

Singling out the administrative chaos in Kosovo, he called for a thorough rethink from the EU's head of foreign and security policy, Javier Solana.

Tudjman might not have been indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, but the partisan general turned hardline nationalist leader was every bit as culpable for the horrors of ethnic cleansing as his Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Croatian authorities are currently blocking a UN war crimes investigation into the "Flash" and "Storm" government offensives which in 1995 expelled Serb forces from the country and created 300,000 Serb refugees in three days.

The Croatian public is grateful to Tudjman for winning Croatia's independence but he had become increasingly unpopular for his crony capitalism. Even the Vecernji List newspaper, close to Mr Tudjman's ruling party, appeared to admit yesterday that change was needed when it described him as "a charismatic leader of the old stamp".

Ivica Racan, leader of the opposition Social Democratic party, said yesterday: "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."

This is what western observers will be looking for in the run up to the elections, which will also have a huge impact in divided Bosnia and internationally isolated Serbia.

"The election campaign has already begun in President Tudjman's glorification on state television," said a western diplomatic source in Zagreb. "The bulletins praising him to the skies get stronger by the hour," he said.

The ruling party, the HDZ, retains tight control of all important state media which will be used mercilessly to push its candidates. Its candidate for the presidency is like to be Croatia's western-leaning foreign minister, Mate Granic.

But the opposition parties, offering economic reform and an opening to Europe, have a good chance of a majority in parliament, if they can keep a coalition glued together.

Croatia's two main opposition blocs, comprising six parties, have decided to swallow their differences to try to overturn years of monolithic rule by the HDZ.

This could send a strong signal to the opposition against Mr Milosevic in Serbia, which has been unable to stop bickering for long enough to win the trust of ordinary Serbs. US and EU officials will be banging Serb opposition heads together in a meeting in Berlin on Friday.

With Tudjman's death, Croatian influence in Bosnia is also likely to wane. Mr Tudjman had tried to foster an ethnic Croat entity there, similar to the Bosnian Serb republic, and dreamed the area would be come part of a greater Croatia.

Last month, Nato peacekeepers seized thousands of documents in Bosnia which allegedly implicate Croatian intelligence services in the efforts of criminal gangs to stop Serb refugees from returning to Bosnia.

The international administration running Bosnia is arguing over arrangements for Bosnian Croats to vote in Croatia's elections. Bosnian Croat voters largely back the HDZ.

"It looks as though the HDZ will lose which if they do, will be better for Bosnia," said a western official in Sarajevo. "The money being pumped in by the HDZ to hardline Croat officials here has slowed of late because of economic problems there [in Croatia] and if the opposition wins, the money will dry up all together.",3604,113794,00.html

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]