Prague, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Croatian President Franjo Tudjman died at age 77. A nationalist who had led Croatia since 1990, Tudjman was the key figure behind the creation of an independent Croatian state.
Croatian television broke into regular programming at 0200 (local time) Saturday morning to announce the death in a brief statement. The cause of death was not specified, but Tudjman was known to be gravely ill after undergoing surgery for a perforated intestine in November. He was rumored to have been fighting cancer since 1996.
Tudjman's election in 1990 as president of the then-Yugoslav republic of Croatia ended the communist party's 45-year monopoly on power in Zagreb. His declaration of independence from federal Yugoslavia in June 1991 prompted a response from Belgrade that helped unleash a series of wars that devastated the Balkans this decade.
Seeking re-election as president of by then independent Croatia in 1997, Tudjman told a crowd in the capital Zagreb that the aim of independence had been what had driven him for decades:
"The way you expressed the Croatian consciousness and determination with which we created a free and independent Croatia -- this is what I believed in. And even in the times when we couldn't say it aloud, that's what gave me the strength to believe that one day, we, the majority of the Croatian people, would create a free Croatian state, of which we dreamed and lived for centuries."
Born on May 14, 1922, in the Croatian village of Veliko Trgoviste, part of what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Tudjman led a political career, much of which was marked by a commitment to Croatian nationalism. He was arrested three times for nationalist activities -- the first time in 1940, when he was only 18, for involvement in Croatia's National Democratic Movement.
His career began in the military during World War Two. After Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Tudjman joined Josip Broz Tito's Communist partisans and actively fought against both the Germans and the Nazi-backed Croat Ustashe regime. A half century later, as a nationalist presidential candidate, Tudjman claimed that he had turned to Marxism as a youth because it was, in his words, "a revolutionary means to make a free and sovereign Croatia."
Following World War Two, Tudjman stayed in Belgrade in Defense Ministry and army posts. By the time he completed his studies at Belgrade's Higher Military Academy in 1957, he had written extensively on history, military theory and international relations. Many of his works espoused Marxist and Yugoslav-oriented views, and have quietly "disappeared" from Croatian libraries in recent years.
Although promoted to general in 1960, Tudjman left active military service the following year to devote himself to civilian pursuits. He helped found the communist institute of the History of the Worker's Movement in Zagreb. He eventually obtained his doctorate at a small university.
It was during his studies in the early 1960s that Tudjman got a job as an archivist at the Zagreb Museum of Military History. Access to the archives fed a fascination with Croatian military history. But his emotional convictions about Croatia's historic greatness soon brought an end to both his academic and military careers.
Tudjman was incensed by a federal regulation in 1967 that Croatian nationalists felt would subordinate their own dialect. He resigned from his posts in protest and became involved in the Croatian nationalist movement. Soon after, he was stripped of military rank.
In 1972, during Tito's crackdown on Croatian nationalism, Tudjman was sent to jail for a year for denying Serbian claims that several hundred thousand Serbs had perished under Croatia's pro-Nazi Ustashe regime. He was jailed again in 1981 after demanding sovereignty for Croatia in interviews with foreign journalists.
But in 1989, when it became possible to form political parties opposed to communism, Tudjman founded the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and became its chair.
Tudjman had a stronger political profile and better organizational skills than his political rivals in Zagreb, as well as the advantages of large amounts of money from Croats abroad. Giving orders like the former general he was, he quickly set up local party units in nearly every town in Croatia and built up his party to 600,000 members. He also set up party cells abroad to attract money and expertise from Croats in other countries. By the 1990 election campaign, Tudjman's rallies were drawing crowds of up to a quarter of a million people.
His message was simple, repetitive, and nationalistic. He proclaimed, in his words, "the genuine and inalienable right of the entire Croatian nation, within its historical and natural borders, to self-determination -- including secession" from Yugoslavia. In his embrace of all things nationalist, Tudjman even praised some aspects of the Ustashe regime that he had fought in his partisan days. The vote resulted in an absolute parliamentary majority for Tudjman's party, and Tudjman became president.
By that summer, the Croatian Democratic Union announced plans for a new constitution that would give the republic much greater autonomy within Yugoslavia. It was one of several plans being discussed in many parts of the former Yugoslavia in response to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's grab for absolute power throughout Yugoslavia.
In June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, unleashing a war with Belgrade. Clashes between Croats and Serbs had already broken out in Croatia's Eastern Slavonia region, where local Serbs had been well armed by the Yugoslav army. The fighting soon spread to include Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the army worked closely with local Serbian nationalists. The wars continued until late 1995, when NATO air strikes and an economic embargo forced Milosevic to agree to a U.S.-sponsored peace settlement at Dayton, Ohio.
In the final months of fighting, Croatia recaptured territory in the Krajina region, which had been controlled by Serbian forces since early in the war. Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs fled. Although there are allegations that Tudjman gave orders to expel the Serbs, no formal charges have been made public by the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
In 1997, Tudjman traveled to the then-UN administered territory of Eastern Slavonia shortly before it too returned to Zagreb's control. He told a crowd that Croats had not wanted war and were still prepared to live in peace with ethnic Serbs.
"We didn't want war. We wanted peace. From the beginning, we were promising the Serbian population in Croatia equal civil and ethnic rights. But the only thing we said to them was you can't govern Croatia as you governed it for the last 50 years. You can be free citizens and have the equal rights of other Croatian citizens. This is our message here today."
In recent years, Tudjman held on to power despite deteriorating health and falling popularity. With the end of the war, most Croats' attention turned to social issues, including widespread poverty. Many also suspected persons high up in the HDZ of having obtained illicit wealth through insider knowledge in the privatization process.
Tudjman's haughty treatment of the media and the opposition did nothing to increase his popularity. His main advantages were the organizational strength of the HDZ and the political ineptitude of the fractious opposition.
Tudjman will have his place in Croatian history for having secured independence. But it will be left to others to establish Croatia as a modern, prosperous and democratic country that is a member of the European community of nations.
(Newsline's Patrick Moore contributed to this report.)