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South Slavic: June 22, 2000

22 June 2000, Volume 2, Number 24

What Future For The Croatian Coalition Government? Part I

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss the life expectancy of the present ruling coalition in Croatia. Our guests are two university professors from Zagreb: Branko Caratan of the Faculty of Political Science and Zarko Puhovski of the Faculty of Philosophy. Part II will appear on 29 June.

It seems to me that, from the very beginning, the ruling coalition has been performing like an untuned orchestra in which every single member plays his own solo. One might say that the fear that they could lose power is the only thing that keeps them together. Do you have the same impression, Mr. Puhovski?

Zarko Puhovski: I must say I do not. It seems to me that they stick together quite solidly. Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, their program is the wrong one, but I do not see major problems with their cohesion. I do not think that they are afraid of losing power since there is no one to take it from them. They stick together because otherwise they would lose their credibility for a long time to come, and that seems to be quite a strong motivation to keep them together.

Branko Caratan: This coalition was created to defeat a dominant party that had clung to power. That is why it was necessary to form a very broad coalition, one broader than necessary simply in order to obtain a majority in the parliament. A broad-based coalition, of course, cannot work like an orchestra conducted by one man. Nevertheless, I agree with my colleague Puhovski that they are not afraid of losing power. What I think they actually fear is what will happen with their economic program.

Omer Karabeg: This government lacks a strong opposition, but it seems that there is one inside the ruling coalition. What it really seems is that [Social Liberal (HSLS) leader] Drazen Budisa has chosen for himself the very comfortable role of critic of the new government. He criticizes every single move of Racan's government, whether because he dislikes it or because it does not fit his strategy of attracting voters, as if his ministers were not part of that government. Do you think that Budisa's present moves are aimed at winning the next election?

Zarko Puhovski: Mr. Budisa is a big loser. Actually, he is more of a loser than just a big one. In tactical terms--and not ideological ones--he acts just like [far-right Freedom Party leader Joerg] Haider does in Austria. Haider also resigned from the government and left his ministers inside.

The same thing happened to Budisa as well, not because he resigned but because he failed to win any office. His present position allows him to stand aside. Unlike his ministers, he does not have to take a stand in support of current policies. That creates misunderstandings or even tensions within the government. But the recent local elections showed that this does not bring any particular benefits to Budisa and his party.

However, I think that Budisa does understand the main problem in Croatia--we have a government that is more leftist than society. Society has accepted such a government in order to get rid of the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ). For years, the HDZ used to be more rightist than society as well, but society had accepted it in order to get rid of the previous communist government. This is the main reason for Budisa's HSLS's turning to the right in the last several weeks, trying to make some gains there.

Branko Caratan: The present government is generally regarded as [Social Democratic Prime Minister] Ivica Racan's government and is often identified with his party. This is why the other coalition partners--regardless of whether they belong to the large coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals or to the smaller one of four other parties--enjoy quite a comfortable position. They can play a double role--being a part of the government and criticizing it at the same time.

However, I do not find this too dramatic for now. The fact is that, after the disintegration of the HDZ, the right side of the political spectrum in Croatia has disintegrated as well. Therefore, there must be some additional space for other parties to move into, although I am not so certain that a party that has the word "social" in its name could so easily switch from a centrist position towards the right. That sort of a maneuver might cost them their centrist voters. I find it quite a risky operation.

Omer Karabeg: Budisa's main objective seems to be picking up voters from the disintegrating HDZ. That might explain his sympathetic attitude towards the recent veterans' protests [against several key government policies], even when the veterans openly threatened the new government. This also explains Budisa's reverence for [the late Herzegovinian leader and Defense Minister] Gojko Susak and the way he blames so-called leftist forces for all the present difficulties.

Zarko Puhovski: Budisa might find himself in a position to pick up a number of voters on the right side of the political spectrum, but at the same time, he might lose those in the center. What we have at this moment is a strengthening of the [small centrist] Croatian People's Party (HNS) [which is linked to President Stipe Mesic], while other coalition partners are moving towards the center one way or another. This includes the Social Democrats, who have pulled back from the left.

Second, Budisa's Croatian Social Liberal Party has already gone farther to the right than, for example, Mate Granic's Democratic Center [which split from the HDZ and used to be that party's moderate wing].... The question is whether Budisa can make his ministers follow him since they are now functioning in quite a different manner within the government. But his minister of defense and minister of science have made it clear that they rely on HDZ appointees and do not intend to conduct any purges. Budisa is going to use that in order to draw closer to the right.

Branko Caratan: First, we should explain what Budisa actually meant by his recent warning against a "danger from the left." He did not hint at the left-of-center position [in the present political context] but at a certain left radicalism that has its origin in the previous regime, in what used to be called left dogmatism. The fiercest critics against him come from these circles.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Caratan, you have said that Budisa mostly criticizes leftist, dogmatic forces. Do they exist at all in Croatia and do they carry any weight?

Branko Caratan: Well, they do not carry any weight in terms of powerful political parties. Parties that lean toward that position are mostly minor ones; they cannot win more than 1 percent of the votes. These forces mostly exist on an intellectual level and they can be recognized by the intensity of their criticism. That is to say that these people want more than they can really expect to have [in the real world of politics].

What irritates those people are instances of "rightist deviations" or inadequate criticism of the Ustasha movement and of the [Tudjman] regime's sins....

Zarko Puhovski: I would gladly include myself among those forces. I suppose I am one of them, and I agree with my colleague Caratan's conclusion. We are talking about people with certain intellectual, journalistic, or literary reputations. These people are not trying to win votes, or, if they do, they do not succeed. These include intellectuals like Professors Branko Horvat and Stipe Suvar, as well as their respective parties.

However, we--let me use this pronoun since I belong to them--can sometimes strike a chord among the public, especially because we belong to that extremely restricted group of people who were the first to confront the HDZ. This was at a time when those who hold power now--as well as the media people--were so happy to have a Croatian state that they did not bother about whether or not it was a state based on the rule of law.

In political terms, it is obvious that those [leftist] forces are nonetheless irrelevant.... However, Budisa's moving towards the right might be dangerous since Croatia could face very harsh and maybe even bloody massive rightist social protests in the fall. I think that, unless there is a sudden or at least symbolic improvement in the standard of living as promised by this government, serious social unrest with a rightist ideological coloring will take place in the fall.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Caratan, do you fear that the right might rally the social malcontents?

Branko Caratan: The right has already tried to do it. Recent incidents--announcements [by right-wing veterans' groups] that they will block the roads during the tourist season, parading with Ustasha symbols--all those things indicate that the right is already trying to provoke unrest. But I find them quite weak, especially the radical right.

Of course, everything is possible. History teaches us that social unrest is a better opportunity for the radical right than for the radical left. But our future is not so bleak. I think that Croatia has a chance if this government avoids making very bad moves.... Croatia must first become a normal state in order to start functioning properly. I think that there is a bigger chance for Croatia to make it than to fail.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Puhovski, does a recent speech by the deputy speaker of the parliament and Budisa's party official, Baltazar Jalsovec, on the occasion of the Bleiburg commemoration--in which he said that the present Croatian state was conceived in Bleiburg--correspond to Budisa's strategy of winning over the rightist voters, or was it just an accident? [The Bleiburg reference is to the massacre of thousands of Ustasha, conscripts, and other non-communists by Tito's Partisans on Austrian territory at the end of World War II--ed.]

Zarko Puhovski: That was an accident, but Budisa welcomed it and expressed his support for Jalsovec. And there is another sentence in Jalsovec's speech--even more interesting than the one about Bleiburg--which indicates that it has been adopted from [Serbian nationalists such as nineteenth-century ideologist Ilija] Garasanin, [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, or [Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav] Seselj.

I am talking about the claim that Croatia is where Croatian bones are buried. That is a literal plagiarism of Serbian primitive nationalist rhetoric, which has been transformed into Croatian primitive nationalist rhetoric.

Therefore, we may conclude that at least on a symbolic level, a new image of the Croatian Social Liberal Party is being created. To put it bluntly, they are now washing their hands of having helped the "reformed communists" [i.e. Racan's Social Democrats] to come to power.

Branko Caratan: I do not believe that everything in politics must have a rational explanation. My long experience tells me that politics is often made up of a series of imprecise statements, mistakes, and wrong moves.

Jalsovec obviously was not up to the task. He found it necessary to flatter the company he was in, and he did it in an unacceptable manner. However, talking about the reactions, many people still overestimate the influence of the radical right that flirts with Ustasha ideology. I think that the radical right has been definitely swept from the scene and all those things--including the black shirts and the Fascist salutes--are nothing but their swan song.