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South Slavic: June 29, 2000

29 June 2000, Volume 2, Number 25

What Future For The Croatian Coalition Government? Part II

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss the life span 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 I appeared on 22 June.

Omer Karabeg: Do you agree, Mr. Puhovski, that those pro-fascist rightist forces have been definitely swept away?

Zarko Puhovski: Probably yes. However, besides those old-style rightists, there are others, more clever and more modern, who are waiting in the wings. They will seek to exploit the discontent caused by the fact that this government--unlike the HDZ which was entrusted with creating an independent state--is entrusted with improving the social situation. Unless some money arrives from abroad by the fall, which will enable Croatia to do something for pensioners and to reduce the number of unemployed, the right might get a chance to politicize social discontent. Its profile would be less fascist than now, but it would still represent a serious threat for the government.

Branko Caratan: The point is whether this government will succeed in reversing the economic trend, in addition to achieving political stabilization and bringing Croatia back to normal. If it does not happen, I can foresee a danger, not that the right might return to power, but of total disarray that might last long and result in chaos. I think that these provocateurs who recently tried to destabilize the government actually intended to set off the chaos that would dislodge Croatia from the road to Europe and turn it back to the Balkan quagmire.

Zarko Puhovski: I think that Prime Minister Racan is not doing what he is supposed to and what he has promised to do, and that might bring him face to face with a very high level of discontent. I agree with my colleague Caratan that, in that case, the right might not necessarily take power, but that it might pose a serious threat. For example, what might happen is that the government would have to send a strong police force into the streets--just like the former government did--which would seriously alter its image.

Omer Karabeg: What do you think Racan is doing wrong?

Zarko Puhovski: I think that he is wrong in making the changes in the state apparatus too slowly, in not replacing the men who should be replaced. On the other hand, Racan is prime minister of a government that promised to lower the value added tax on Tuesday--but on Thursday, it said not only that the VAT would not be lowered, but it also announced that the excise tax would be increased. After that, the government tried to convince us that the 30 percent rise in the price of petrol would not have an impact on the inflation rate. That is simply nonsense that a serious politician should never utter.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Puhovski, do you think that Racan and his Social Democrats are wrong in being more hostile towards President Mesic than towards Budisa? Is not Mesic supposed to be closer to the Social Democrats with his explicit antifascism and anti-Tudjmanism?

Zarko Puhovski: The point is that, soon after he was elected, Mesic created for himself the reputation of a man ready for a radical confrontation with the past, while Racan acts likes a man who does not really care about the past. He is more worried about the future, and it remains to be seen what it is going to be like. This is how Mesic scores points and that is what Racan finds problematic.

Therefore he reacts, but not publicly. He does it his own way. He is a man who has grown up in the corridors of power and that is the way he functions. He tries to resolve it from inside.

Mr. Racan is connected with the media empire of Mr. Pavic and that is where he presents his theses, while Mr. Mesic is connected with another newspaper--Mr. Pukanic's weekly "Nacional." This is why we have a situation in which all the things that leak from the presidential palace are always published in the same paper--"Nacional"--while, on the other hand, "Globus," "Jutarnji list," and other papers owned by Pavic papers try to reply from Racan's point of view.

Please, do not get me wrong, but now we have a situation in which the pawns wage war in the name of Mesic and Racan. There are thus no major and direct polemics between them, but both of them have gathered their allies--from journalists to constitutional lawyers--and that is how the conflict goes on.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Caratan, do you find Mesic's positions closer to Racan's than to Budisa's?

Branko Caratan: One could say that at this moment, Mesic is acting from a leftist position, which is undoubtedly closer to the Social Democrats [than to the Social Liberals]. However, one should not forget that Mesic and Budisa were rivals in the presidential race and that is where the present bickering began.

Mesic's situation is less complicated since he can criticize, advise, ask, and promise in the name of the nation but does not have to deliver anything. Racan's position is somehow more difficult--when he makes a promise, he has to fulfill it.

However, Mesic's role is great, and all those saying that the role of a head of state is not important in a parliamentary system are wrong. It can be very important in a crisis. Let us just remember the role of the Spanish king [Juan Carlos] when a coup was attempted in that state: he was the one who salvaged the situation.

What I am trying to say is that there is room for both Mesic and for Racan's government in today's Croatia, and that we do not need these skirmishes. It is harmful for the country. I think that they have already realized that it brings no results and that it ultimately hurts those responsible.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Puhovski, do you think that Budisa might, at some point, decide to leave the coalition and withdraw his support for Racan?

Zarko Puhovski: In principle, that is possible. What is also possible, in principle, is a parliamentary majority made up of the HSLS and the HDZ, together with the [Mate Granic's] Democratic Center and the [extremist] Croatian Party of [Historic] Rights.

However, I think that would be the end of Budisa and his Social Liberals, and he is well aware of it. It is true that ideological and world-view differences between Mesic and Racan are not so great, but what really matters here are differences in approach.

As far as an understanding of politics is concerned, Budisa is closer to Racan than is Mesic. Racan and Budisa share the same understanding of politics, no matter how different their world-views are. They need each other to succeed, just like Siamese twins. Budisa's party was facing collapse and Racan needed him to counterbalance his own [image problems stemming from his communist past].

They will continue to need each other until the next elections--which may take place in a couple of months. This could see a repeat of the situation we had in the recent local elections in Zagreb, when their parties fought the race individually and did not team up as they did previously in order to topple the HDZ.

Omer Karabeg: Are you saying that, besides all the ideological differences, their alliance was a calculated one from the very beginning? This marriage between the Social Democrats and the Croatian Social Liberal Party seems unnatural.

Zarko Puhovski: Well, that was a marriage of convenience and it was, undoubtedly, arranged through foreign matchmaking. They need each other. If Budisa left the government, it would mean the end of it, but he would not be able to create a new one. That would mean new elections, and, with the present state of things, the voters would punish the party responsible for the early ballot. Budisa is certainly well aware of that.

Branko Caratan: If the HSLS made the government collapse, that would be political suicide for the party. People expect a lot from this government. Everybody in the government is well aware that they have to stick together, or they will lose everything.

The alliance of the SDP and the HSLS is not--as the former president used to say--an unnatural coalition. It was a very reasonable thing to do. Social democracy in Western Europe is getting closer to liberalism and liberalism has a strong need to emphasize the social element of its programs. Furthermore, post-communist societies are now restoring the basic liberal political and economic ideas, and that is what the leftist forces in these societies support.

And one more thing. The SDP was long reproached for not being "national" enough, while the HSLS risked becoming politically marginalized. [Neither of these points holds any longer.] Both parties have thus made gains through the alliance.

Omer Karabeg: Finally, Mr. Puhovski, do you think that the present ruling coalition will last until the end of its term of office?

Zarko Puhovski: I hope so. If not, its collapse will be caused by pressure from outside the legislature. There is no danger for the government in the parliament, but I fear non-parliamentary pressure as well as mistakes by some foreign actors. The latter, I am afraid, do not understand that Croatia needs serious and immediate assistance, and that it does not need to be tripped up by their demands that some generals be urgently sent to The Hague.

Omer Karabeg: You think that only social unrest might make the government fall?

Zarko Puhovski: This is what it seems to me just now.

Branko Caratan: I do not find the generals so important. War criminals must be sent where they belong, whether they are civilians, soldiers, or generals.

Something else is far more important: what will happen with the economy. I find Croatia too pivotal at this moment, and this is why the West cannot afford a policy of waiting and slow responses. It is not important now whether Croatia takes part in some form or other of Western integration. It is far more important whether it receives concrete support--first of all economic and financial--in order to get out of this difficult situation.

Politicians in the West should show now--and not just verbally--that the government in Croatia deserves their full support and that it must be helped to solve its very difficult problems.

If the present government in Croatia collapsed, there would be a chaotic situation, and neither the problems of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, nor of Serbia could be solved. I think that the European Union would have great difficulties in that case as well. I think that the EU and U.S. politicians have already learned what it means to intervene too late and too clumsily in this region. However, I fear that they have not drawn all the necessary conclusions.

Omer Karabeg: If I understand you correctly, you believe that economic aid from the West is essential for the survival of this government?

Branko Caratan: Yes. If there were an economic collapse in Croatia, it would not be just our problem anymore.