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Balkan Report: January 4, 2000

4 January 2000, Volume 4, Number 1

Croatian Opposition Confronts Challenge Of Governing. The two Croatian opposition coalitions appear headed for a landslide win over the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which has held power for nearly 10 years. Once in office, the coalitions will have their work cut out for them.

The 3 January parliamentary elections were remarkable for at least two reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2000). First, they mark the end of the HDZ's long grip on power through most of Croatia. During the past decade, opposition parties won control of Istria and several cities, but the HDZ's control of the central government was complete. For the first time since gaining independence in 1991, Croats will now experience a peaceful transition of authority to the opposition (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 November 1999).

Second, as some pre-election polls anticipated, the winners' margin of victory was a large one. Voters clearly wanted a change and failed to be swayed by the HDZ's appeals for a sympathy vote in honor of the late President Franjo Tudjman, who died in December. Preliminary returns suggest that the two coalitions will have approximately 95 out of about 150 seats in the lower house. The largest coalition, which consists of the Social Democrats (SDP) and the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), seems likely to take 71 seats. The SDP's Ivica Racan is set to head the new government, while the HSLS's Drazen Budisa will be his coalition's candidate in the 24 January presidential vote to replace Tudjman. The smaller coalition of four centrist parties will likely win 24 legislative seats. The HDZ's share has fallen from 75 in the 1995 elections to a more modest 40 this time.

The margin of victory could prove a poisoned chalice for the coalitions, however, because the voters will expect a government with such a strong mandate to deliver on its pre-election promises. These involve social and economic progress, democratization, and putting and end to international isolation.

The key issue for most voters was the need to improve the standard of living in a country with more than 20 percent unemployed and a monthly per capita income of about $400. Tudjman's election slogan earlier in the decade was "from victory to prosperity," but it has proven empty for most Croats, including for many veterans of the war for independence. Once the war ended in 1995 and people's attention turned increasingly to economic concerns, the SDP began a steady rise from the margins of political life to become the largest opposition party. It's platform centers on bread-and-butter issues and shuns nationalist rhetoric; the SDP is the only major party that does not include the word "Croatian" in its name.

The second area in which voters will have great expectations of the new government will be in democratization. As was the case in post-Meciar Slovakia, the new Croatian government has pledged to investigate the many dubious privatizations carried out by its predecessor. A major source of resentment against the HDZ was the popular perception that party insiders grew ever richer at a time when most Croats had difficulty making ends meet. The coalitions have pledged to clean out these Augean stables.

The new government has also promised to end political manipulation of the media--particularly of state-run television.--and of the intelligence services. Tudjman's imperial presidency, moreover, will be reduced in scale, and many of his powers transferred to parliament in a move that even the HDZ has pledged to support.

The victorious coalitions will also likely examine the constitutional provisions that give full citizenship to ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are also citizens of that republic. The central issue is the provision granting the Herzegovinians--who include many hard-line nationalists--the right to vote in Croatian elections. By curbing or eliminating that right, the new government would deny the HDZ a large block of electors. The government would also gain favor with the international community, which regards the HDZ as bent on realizing Tudjman's dream of a greater Croatia at Bosnia's expense. It was no accident that one of the first reactions to the coalitions' victory came from prominent Bosnian Muslim politician Mirza Hajic, who said: "That is good news for Bosnia and Herzegovina."

This leads to the third area in which the new government will seek to make good on its promises, namely the need to end Croatia's international isolation on account of the HDZ's policies on democratization and on Bosnia. Nowhere was the isolation more painfully evident than at Tudjman's funeral, at which only Turkey was represented by its head of state; most Western countries sent only their ambassadors. When Slovenia and Croatia became independent in 1991, they were at the same place on the road to Euro-Atlantic integration. Now Slovenia is at the forefront of most post-communist countries in this respect, but Croatia has slid behind even Albania and Macedonia. Those two Balkan countries belong to NATO's Partnership for Peace Program, which Croatia has not been invited to join.

But to the extent that the coalitions institute democratic reforms at home and cut ties to the Herzegovinian nationalists, they are likely to find a quick and warm response from Washington and the EU. Encouraging words have already come from those quarters. And the large diaspora can serve as a bridge between Croatia and its Western allies.

Additional pitfalls nonetheless remain. The coalitions will need to remain united and not fall prey to squabbling among themselves, as has happened in post-Meciar Slovakia. This will be all the more important if the HDZ's moderate and popular Mate Granic defeats Budisa for the presidency, and if the fractious HDZ itself remains united. The new government will also need to define a position on allowing ethnic Serbian refugees to return that will please both the international community and the voters. Precious little of this will be easy. (Patrick Moore)

'The Paris Of The East.' This was a badge worn proudly by Bucharest for many decades beginning in the 19th century. Following World War II, that epithet became increasingly out of date for the Romanian capital. "Vesti" writes that, if New Year's celebrations for the year 2000 are anything to go by, the title now belongs to Pozarevac, Serbia.

Why Pozarevac? It is the hometown of Serbia's ruling family and suffers from few, if any, of the deprivations that face other Serbs in many other places. At a time when countless Serbs shivered in their apartments because their buildings had no heating or because the customers could no longer afford their utility bills, Pozarevac was all aglow. The spectacular laser and light show was thanks to several firms run by Marko Milosevic, who is the playboy son of the president and one of the Balkans' most successful businessmen. (Patrick Moore)

Fun Facts. On 24 December, the Yugoslav federal parliament passed the budget for the year 2000. Some 72 percent of it goes to the military. One observer noted that this shows the extent to which the Yugoslav federation has been reduced to the military and little else. (Patrick Moore)

Quotations Of The Week. "We were aware of the citizens' feelings." -- Croatian Prime Minister designate Ivica Racan, after the opposition's landslide victory on 3 January.

"If the Montenegrin people think life outside Yugoslavia would be better for them, they have a right to choose such a life. If, on the other hand, they think life in Yugoslavia is the optimum choice for them, they have to stick to it. In that case they have to follow the rules of the game dictated by life in a joint state with [the Serbs], above all the constitution that they created together.... The constitution can be changed of course, and that is good. We are living in dynamic times and it is logical that the state is organized more dynamically than before, keeping in mind the pace of changes currently taking place." -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "Politika" on 30 December.

"Our relations with the [NATO] alliance have apparently entered a new phase of getting colder. The alliance is trying to talk to Russia about the problem of Chechnya from the position of force." -- Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, in Kosova on 24 December. Quoted by Reuters.

"Our cooperation with Russian soldiers on the ground is just outstanding. KFOR is doing a great job and that's why it was a very good thing that the Russian minister was here today to hear that directly." -- NATO European commander General Wesley Clark. Asked why he had not met Sergeev, despite the two men being in Prishtina at the same time, he said no such meeting had been scheduled, Reuters reported.