Croatia's Million Man No-Show

Warnings of a right-wing coup were overstated, as a massive anti-government rally is cancelled due to lack of interest.

Croatia's Million Man No-Show

Warnings of a right-wing coup were overstated, as a massive anti-government rally is cancelled due to lack of interest.

Wednesday, 29 August, 2001

Croatia's resurgent nationalist right suffered its severest recent setback last week, when a planned million-strong protest rally was cancelled, owing to the organisers' fears that the expected level of support would not materialise.

The "Assembly of All Croats" was due to take place on August 24 at Znjan, near Split, a site hallowed by nationalists as the place where Pope John Paul II began his historic visit to the newly independent state in 1997.

The meeting was formally organised by a little-known body called the Congress of All Croats for Freedom of Speech, seen as a front for a constellation of right wing groups united by their fierce opposition to the six-party centre-left government of Ivica Racan. Racan took power from the right wing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, in January 2000.

Reports that the organisers planned to announce the formation of a government of national unity sparked claims on the government side that the rally's organisers were bent on dislodging the country's elected government by force.

While President Stipe Mesic described the rally as a "circus", Mato Arlovic, deputy president of Racan's Social Democratic Party, said the HDZ was trying "to stage a coup and take power without elections". The party even called a press conference two weeks beforehand to publicise this warning. Mato Crkvenac, the Social Democratic finance minister, went further, comparing the planned gathering to the vast Serb rally organised by Slobodan Milosevic at Kosovo Polje in 1989, a milestone in Yugoslavia's disintegration.

The hard right in Croatia comprises several elements, including the radical rump of the old HDZ under Ivic Pasalic, a former adviser to the late President Franjo Tudjman, officials of the state security apparatus, led by Miroslav Tudjman, older son of the ex-president; and members of the police and the army, including several senior officers angry over or perhaps themselves at risk of war crimes indictments. They enjoy the support of several top sportsmen, including the Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic, as well as several bishops in the country's powerful Catholic Church.

The right's hopes were boosted by their propaganda success at the Alka festival and tournament, held at Sinj, on August 5, when the popular annual Dalmatian folklore celebration turned into an anti-government protest. Leading participants savaged President Mesic and his government over their handling of co-operation with the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Amid rising political tension, one day before the rally a weapons collection point mysteriously exploded in Osijek, in eastern Slavonia, near the police headquarters in the city centre. Although there were no fatalities, the blast caused enormous material damage.

While the public awaits an official explanation, some observers claim the bombing was the work of the right, intended to rattle the government over its plans to slash Croatia's over-large police force of 36,000 by at least 3,000. The move is highly contentious, as the opposition charges that only HDZ members are getting the sack. Further cuts have also been proposed in the army.

The sudden decision to call off the Split rally may not mark much more than a tactical retreat by the right in its war with Racan's wobbly coalition. The country remains deeply politically divided, and the government's lack-lustre handling of the country's manifold economic problems have merely made it more vulnerable to accusations from the right that it is also unpatriotic and incapable of resisting foreign pressure.

It is no accident that Split, which has some of the country's most dire economic indicators, is also the centre of right-wing activism, and the scene of large anti-government parades in March over the arrest of General Mirko Norac, accused of war crimes against Serb civilians in 1991.

The right will probably sit out the remaining weeks of the holiday season - when large demonstrations would, in any case, court the marked displeasure of Dalmatia's influential hoteliers and guest-house owners - and wait for the government to slip up in the autumn.

An opportunity may well present itself if - and when - the authorities make a move against General Ante Gotovina, indicted by the Hague tribunal for his role in the 1995 Operation Storm, when Croat forces recaptured Serb-held territory lost in 1991, and in the process killed several hundred Serb civilians as 200,000 fled.

Gotovina is still at large, presumably in Croatia. The government appears fearful of handing him over to the tribunal, motivated, no doubt, by well-founded fears that the million-strong march - give or take a few - could yet become reality.

Dragutin Hedl, IWPR project editor in Croatia, is a journalist with Feral Tribune.

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