Prague, 26 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- During the past few weeks, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has faced the most difficult political crisis in the history of his ruling Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ).
A series of events has pitted the party's moderate and hard-line factions --the latter is often called the Herzegovinian lobby-- against each other. The conflicts culminated in the resignation of three of Tudjman's most trusted political allies, all moderates.
The balance of power within the HDZ and within Croatia has now dramatically shifted to the right. In the short run, this threatens the Dayton peace process and Croatia's hopes for integration into Europe. In the long run, as the opposition to the party begins to act more effectively, the shift may ultimately threaten Tudjman and the HDZ's hold on power.
The two HDZ factions disagree over a number of basic issues. The moderates tend to support Croatia's integration into Europe and compliance with the Dayton agreement. The hard-liners, who maintain close ties to the military and to Croats in Herzegovina, often support the idea of a separate Croatian state in Herzegovina, thus prompting friction with the international community.
A month ago, HDZ moderates Hrvoje Sarinic, head of the president's staff, and Franjo Greguric, the president's special envoy for Bosnia and Herzegovina, publicly attacked the party's right-wingers. The moderates accused the hard-liners, who are led by the President's special adviser for domestic affairs Ivic Pasalic, of using the Croatian Military Intelligence Service to spy on them and of orchestrating a smear campaign against moderates in the tabloid press.
At the same time, moderate Andrija Hebrang, the new Minister of Defense, also became the target of a campaign conducted by HDZ hard-liners opposed to his defense policies. The public airing of the HDZ's dirty laundry confronted Tudjman with a difficult choice: either support an investigation of the activities of the hard-liners or lose Sarinic, Greguric and Hebrang.
In the end, only a perfunctory investigation was carried out, and last week Sarinic, Hebrang, and Greguric presented Tudjman with their resignations in protest. In the past, Tudjman had often sought to balance moderate and hard-line forces within the party in order to consolidate his grip on power. But this time Tudjman chose to side with the hard-liners, who share his ambitious plans for Bosnia-Herzegovina and who have displayed unwavering loyalty.
The moderates are at least partly responsible for their own setback. As a group, they have been more concerned with their own personal interests and positions than with acting as a cohesive force. No other moderates supported Sarinic, Greguric, and Hebrang in their struggle with Pasalic and the HDZ's Right wing. Nor did any other moderate speak out when the three were forced out of the party hierarchy.
After their resignations, Tudjman tried to stabilize the balance of power within the party by naming Nedeljko Mihanovic and Ivica Kostovic, politicians who remained neutral throughout the hard-liners' campaign, to replace Hebrang and Sarinic. But these moves may not succeed in restoring balance to the party. The departure of Hebrang, Sarinic, and Greguric has left the moderate wing without its most able leaders, and the balance of power within the HDZ has clearly shifted to the right.
Sarinic and Greguric were both personal friends of the President and his closest advisers. When Hebrang, who is a doctor, resigned as defense minister, he also resigned as Tudjman's chief physician. Many credited him with helping Tudjman recover from cancer, and there was much speculation that he was being groomed as Tudjman's successor. Hebrang is regarded as an honest and principled politician, the kind of man who could have brought wheeler-dealer activities at the Ministry of Defense under control.
With the departure of Sarinic, Greguric and Hebrang, Tudjman has lost some of his most trusted and professional political supporters, which will likely force him now to rely more on hard-liners. This shift could lead in the near future to Zagreb's open support for Croatian separatists in Herzegovina and therefore to increased international isolation for Croatia. The international community's High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Carlos Westendorp, and his deputy, Jacques Klein, have both recently expressed concern that the victory of HDZ hard-liners could have negative effects both on the Bosnian peace process and on Croatia's hopes of joining Europe soon.
In the long term, the HDZ's move to the right could even end up threatening Tudjman's hold on power. The party has increasingly relied on nationalist rhetoric and the nationalist vote to stay in power. That approach has made it popular with Croat voters in Herzegovina and among many Croatians abroad. But it has not had the same success at home. Hard-liners like Pasalic and the generals in the Ministry of Defense are unpopular with the electorate in Croatia. Nationalist rhetoric also seems to be losing its appeal in the face of increasing social and economic problems.
The shift in domestic opinion was reflected in the success of an opposition coalition that won an overwhelming majority in recent local elections in Dubrovnik. Some opposition parties have also agreed to form a coalition for the coming general elections which must take place by the end of 1999. With the opposition gaining strength and the HDZ moving to the right, Croatia may be poised to enter both a post-Tudjman and a post-HDZ era after the next general elections.
(Andrej Krickovic is a free-lance journalist based in Zagreb.)