Accessibility links

Breaking News

Croatia: Tudjman Leaves A Controversial Legacy

Franjo Tudjman has dominated Croatian politics both in the years leading up to independence in 1991 and in the years since. With his death, the country therefore faces a major turning point in its affairs. RFE/RL regional analyst Patrick Moore looks at Croatia after Tudjman.

Prague, 11 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The death of President Franjo Tudjman marks the beginning of a new era for Croatia. The tasks facing the new leadership will include instituting political change, promoting Euro-Atlantic integration, and raising the standard of living.

Tudjman has lost his battle with cancer, which has lasted at least three years. He is the first of the major figures in the dramatic events in the former Yugoslavia this past decade to die in office. It is ironic that the first of this small group to pass on is Tudjman, a life-long athlete and non-smoker.

Tudjman's legacy is likely to remain the subject of controversy for a long time to come. To his supporters, he has his place in history as the father of independence and the man who "made Croatia." He alone had the organizational skills, contacts to wealthy Croats in the diaspora, and personal reputation as a nationalist leader to perform three vital tasks. These were ousting the communists in the 1990 elections, winning independence the following year, and defeating the ethnic Serb rebels in 1995, his backers add.

To his detractors, Tudjman will remain a tyrant who should have left office long ago, at the very latest following his defeat of the Serbs. A stiff man comfortable only with his trusted inner circle, his military and communist experiences made him authoritarian and intolerant of differing views. His ego and obsession with the trappings of power often made him the subject of jokes. Tudjman may have been the right man to win independence, his detractors would say, but he was not the one to build a democratic, prosperous country integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

In fact, post-Tudjman Croatia indeed faces a wide array of problems. The first group is political, and is headed by the question of the future of Tudjman's governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which has dominated politics for nearly a decade. It is the last of the East European mass movements that emerged in the 1980s to bring about the fall of communism. All the others -- including Solidarity in Poland and the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia -- have broken up into ideologically-based successor organizations. Many observers argue that the time for the HDZ to do likewise is long overdue.

They may not have long to wait. At least since Tudjman first underwent cancer surgery in 1996, several prominent subordinates have been jockeying for top positions. It is likely that these individuals could soon find themselves heads of new political parties that would emerge from the main factions of the HDZ. One could imagine Foreign Minister Mate Granic heading a moderate party, while the lower house of parliament's deputy speaker Vladimir Seks might lead a stringently nationalist organization. Tudjman's aide Ivic Pasalic might find himself at the head of a grouping of his fellow Herzegovinians, who form a very powerful interest group inside the HDZ.

A second issue involves the future of the opposition and its impact on the broader political scene. One reason that the HDZ and Tudjman have held power for nearly ten years is the ineptitude of the fractious opposition. The two leading opposition parties have formed a coalition and the four smaller ones have made a pact of their own to fight upcoming elections for the lower house. The question is whether they will be able to maintain a unity of purpose in a post-Tudjman world.

Some observers suggest that the impending fragmentation of the HDZ will lead to a totally new political landscape, in which individual factions of the HDZ will combine with what are now opposition parties. Others fear that Tudjman's departure will remove the common enemy to all opposition parties and leave them fighting once again among themselves. In such a scenario, the HDZ would continue to hold on to power as before.

This leads to a third issue stemming from the Tudjman era, namely the democratization of political life. Washington and Brussels have made it clear time and again that electoral, minority, and media legislation will have to be brought up to Western standards if Croatia is ever to become integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Furthermore, Zagreb will have to respect all of its obligations regarding the sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the 1995 Dayton peace accord.

Croatia has, moreover, a long way to go to raise its standing in Western estimation. In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia both emerged as independent states. At present, Slovenia seems well on the way to membership in the EU and NATO, while Croatia has fallen behind even such poor Balkan countries as Albania and Macedonia.

This state of affairs is unacceptable to the center and left portions of the political spectrum. One may expect any government that they may eventually form to make serious efforts to accommodate Croatia' Western friends on democratization.

A closely related issue is privatization. To the extent that it has been carried out at all, it has chiefly benefited people with close ties to the HDZ. There have been loud calls from many sections of society for a thorough investigation of this and other forms of corruption. Furthermore, most Croats have to struggle to make ends meet with incomes of about 450 dollars per month but with prices on a German level. As far as the majority of the population is concerned, the first priority of a post-Tudjman leadership should be to raise the standard of living, particularly for people with low or fixed incomes.