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Croatia: State Media Brands Politician A Traitor

Prague, 14 May 1997 (RFE/RL) The state-controlled media launched a campaign on May 9 to depict one of Croatia's best-known politicians, Stipe Mesic, as a traitor.

Mesic is accused of defaming President Franjo Tudjman and Croatia itself in his alleged testimony to the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The campaign, however, reveals more about the regime and its fears than it says about Mesic or historical truth.

According to dailies such as "Vjesnik," "Slobodna Dalmacija," and "Vecernji list," the 62 year-old dapper politician from Slavonska Orahovica recently supplied the court with ten pages of testimony. The text, the papers say, blames Tudjman and the top Croatian leadership for the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and for the war crimes there.

Mesic allegedly charged that Tudjman met many times with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to discuss the partition of Bosnia. The regime dailies stress that Mesic's testimony has shamed his country and its leadership in a "morally scandalous" fashion.

The charges left Mesic baffled. That same evening, he told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that there is some truth in the media reports, but that they also omit some key facts.

First, he never was a witness in The Hague but simply gave an interview to court representatives last year. Second, the bulk of his testimony did not center on Tudjman or Croatia, but rather on Milosevic's role in the destruction of the former Yugoslavia. Mesic was the last Yugoslav presidency president and hence in a unique position to observe the destruction of the multi-ethnic state in 1991.

Third, none of what he allegedly told the court was new. Mesic pointed out that Hrvoje Sarinic, a prominent pro-Tudjman politician, has admitted that the two presidents held many more private meetings since 1990 than either side has officially admitted. And Tudjman himself has often publicly expressed doubts about the viability of Bosnia as a state. He once even drew a map on a napkin for a British politician to show how Bosnia could best be partitioned.

Mesic has no idea who is behind what he calls his "political lynching" in the state-run media. But he knows it must be people very high up in the governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). He charged that those Croatian leaders who conducted bad Bosnian policies that he opposed appear to be trying to shift some of the blame or embarrassment onto him. He fears, moreover, that the press campaign could lead to physical violence against him.

Mesic might have added that there is yet another strange aspect to the campaign, namely that it is aimed at a man whose days of power and influence seem to be behind him.

When Croatia became independent in 1991, he was already a leading member of the HDZ and was elected speaker of parliament. In 1994, however, he joined the opposition and lost the speaker's job. Despite great efforts in the meantime, he never managed to regain his old prominence. Polls suggest that many regard him as a man of the past.

The question remains as to why the HDZ ever bothered to launch the attacks. The most obvious answer is that presidential elections will take place in June and that the charges against Mesic are simply part of an ongoing campaign to identify Tudjman and the HDZ with Croatian state interests.

One analyst in Zagreb told RFE/RL on 12 May that the regime may be trying to divert popular attention from Tudjman's own real failings in foreign policy and his growing isolation from the West. The analyst added that the articles may also reflect the leadership's fear of the tribunal at a time when Washington and other major capitals are putting pressure on Zagreb to cooperate with the court and to support the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Another question is how the text of Mesic's remarks found its way from the tribunal into the Croatian press. Mesic said in the telephone interview that he suspects it was leaked by someone in The Hague to embarrass Croatia. But Court officials told an RFE/RL correspondent in The Hague that the tribunal rigorously protects the identity of all those who supply it with information.

In any event, the Zagreb-based analyst said he thinks it is heartening to note that the court might indeed be collecting testimony on the likes of Tudjman and Milosevic.