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Croatia: Is HDZ A Party Of Nationalists Or 'Conservatives'?

When the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) won parliamentary elections earlier this month, many shuddered at the thought of a possible political comeback of nationalism in Croatia. Unfounded fears, say HDZ leaders, insisting the party has radically changed -- but will they prove it in office?

Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- �I hope they are right, and they better be right.�

That was the reaction this past week of NATO Secretary-General George Robertson to claims by Croatia�s HDZ party it had broken with its nationalist past. HDZ -- founded by former Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman -- triumphed in parliamentary elections on 23 November, leading at least some to fear a resurgence of nationalism in Croatia.

European Union officials had a similar message, insisting they will judge a new HDZ-led government by its deeds, not by its words. Diego de Ojeda, spokesman for EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, left no doubt about that earlier this week: "We will be looking at the deeds, at the facts, at the new policies of the government rather than looking at programs or statements."

HDZ is a potent name in recent Croatian history, inseparably linked with Tudjman, its longtime leader. The party led Croatia to independence in 1991, but was deeply tarnished by its role in the bloodshed that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The party was trounced in elections in 2000 by a center-left, pro-reform coalition -- just a year after Tudjman�s death.

Now, three years later, party leaders say HDZ has broken with its nationalist past and transformed itself into a modern, traditional Conservative party, similar to Germany�s Christian Democratic Union.

Party leader Ivo Sanader never tired of repeating that before and after the vote. He said his party�s priorities were to bring Croatia into the European Union and NATO as well as to improve relations with its Balkans neighbors. "Our priority in foreign policy will certainly be joining the European Union and NATO and resolving all open questions with our neighbors. We want fast normalization of these relations. We also wish a clear European perspective for our Eastern neighbors as they want it for themselves."

Despite the reassurances, however, suspicions linger about Sanader�s sincerity.

Zagreb-based political analyst Tomislav Jakic says it�s �a million dollar question� whether HDZ has truly transformed itself. He tells RFE/RL that HDZ has indeed undergone changes, but that they are more evident among the party leadership than the rank-and-file.

�Mr. Sanader's ambition is without any doubt to transform his party into a modern European Conservative party. He succeeded until now to a certain degree and I am sure that his election victory will enable him to continue with this project. But as a whole I would say his party has not changed yet in a way that we could say it is already a modern European Conservative party,� Jakic said.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based media organization, said ahead of the election the party ran in effect two campaigns. One at the leadership level was busy projecting the new image. At the local level, HDZ conducted a different campaign, at times openly appealing to traditional nationalist sentiments.

They say some of the promises Sanader has made may not be accepted at the grassroots level.

The litmus tests for HDZ are widely seen as the party�s stand on the return of ethnic Serbs who fled the country during the wars and on its cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

Before the election, Sanader urged Serb refugees to return � something which, analysts say, the outgoing center-left coalition failed to do publicly for fear of a nationalist backlash.

Sanader also promised to cooperate with the war tribunal, although a month before the election he said he wanted some -- what he called �politicized� -- cases reviewed.

Jakic acknowledges Sanader will face some resistance to cooperating with The Hague prosecutors, but he says this resistance may have more noise than actual substance. He says that parties that actually called openly for opposing the tribunal fared poorly in the vote.

�He will confront some resistance, if he continues this way. But on the other hand, if you bear in mind that the ultra-rightist parties who became known only by opposing the cooperation with The Hague tribunal were practically destroyed, annihilated in this election, one could conclude that people who are very loudly opposing cooperation with The Hague [tribunal] are very loud, but [not very numerous],� Jakic said.

Jakic says, however, that cooperation with The Hague tribunal could still be complicated by the party�s past and the will of the leadership to overcome this legacy: �Primarily it depends on the political will of the party leadership. Because this party leadership without any doubt controls the party and if they decide it is time to confront the truth about the last decade, about the beginning of the Croatian independence, they will do it and they will be able to do it.�

The question now turns to whom the HDZ will choose as a coalition partner to form a majority government.

HDZ has reportedly already been in contact with the Peasants� Party, a moderate conservative party that was part of the outgoing government. It has also reportedly spoken with the right-wing Party of Rights, which is opposed to cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal.

The Independent Serbian Democratic Party (SDSS), which is to represent the Serbian minority in parliament, has already said it will support the government. Cooperation with the Serbian minority would be especially important for HDZ to win over its skeptics.