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2001 In Review: Croatia Boosts Ties With West, Faces Division Over War Crimes

Croatia has been improving its relations with the West since the country's wartime president, the late Franjo Tudjman, died in December 1999. The most controversial developments in Zagreb during 2001 involved cooperation with the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Croatian leaders also have won praise for a new approach on relations with neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Croatia has been stepping out of the shadow that was cast over its relations with the West by the country's wartime leader, the late President Franjo Tudjman.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic received Western praise as a leader who is contributing to the stability of southeastern Europe after he stood against radical Bosnian-Croat nationalists who threatened to set up their own mini-state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Early in the year, the Bosnian branch of the nationalist party founded by Tudjman -- the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) -- staged a series of violent demonstrations in western parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is a volatile region where ethnic Croats are in the majority.

Mesic explained his views on the contentious issue during a visit to RFE/RL's Prague headquarters last March: "It is our duty to support the role of the individuals among Croats in Bosnia who are not for the division of [Bosnia-Herzegovina], to support their political stands and to strengthen them. The Croatian Democratic Union has no legal right to pretend that it is the exclusive representative of the political interests of Bosnian Croats -- especially when this policy is disastrous."

Mesic went on to explain that while HDZ officials in Bosnia had received financial and political support from Zagreb during the Tudjman era, there has been a reversal of that policy since a pro-European reformist government came to power in elections after Tudjman's death in December 1999.

"With regards to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Zagreb's official position has changed completely since the previous regime [of Tudjman]," he said. "Now we recognize the independence and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we are encouraging local Croats -- Bosnian Croats -- to seek all the solutions to their problems within the institutions of Bosnia -- to stop looking toward Zagreb and to turn themselves toward Sarajevo."

Another challenge faced by Zagreb's post-Tudjman leadership in the past year relates to sending indicted Croatian war crimes suspects to the UN tribunal in The Hague.

As in Belgrade, cooperation with the UN tribunal remains a contentious political issue in Zagreb -- particularly when the indicted suspects are military commanders who are considered by Croatian nationalists as war heroes.

In July, Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan's government agreed that two indicted former Croatian Army commanders should go to The Hague for trial -- retired General Ante Gotovina and an ethnic Albanian general named Rahim Ademi.

The decision sparked a crisis with the governing coalition. Four cabinet ministers resigned in protest. But the government survived a confidence vote that Racan had called in parliament.

During the debates, Racan told the parliament that Croatia's international obligations left no other option than to cooperate with The Hague tribunal.

President Mesic supported Racan through the crisis. He also criticized HDZ hard-liners and Croatian war veterans who staged large protests and blocked key roads in the country: "The government of the Republic of Croatia took the only decision it could take objectively, and did what it had to do. That's why [moves by the HDZ to] turn up the heat, creating a feeling of psychosis and a virtual state of emergency, seem inappropriate and unnecessary. A lawfully elected government cannot and must not even think of avoiding its international obligations."

In another sensitive case, the UN tribunal has agreed to allow Zagreb to conduct a trial of indicted General Mirko Norac and four other Croatian soldiers who are accused of committing war crimes against Serb civilians in 1991.

But Croatian authorities have postponed that trial five times. The UN tribunal has the power to reverse its earlier decision and order the five suspects to be transferred to The Hague if it determines the trial is not being handled properly by Zagreb.

Such a call from The Hague would likely heighten the tensions that still exist within the coalition -- particularly between moderate and nationalist factions in the second-largest party of the coalition, the Croatian Social Liberal Party.

The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that Racan's government could survive this kind of challenge. But the EIU says ongoing tension between the Social Liberals and other coalition parties could cause Prime Minister Racan to call an early election during the second half of next year.