Racan Respite Could Be Short-lived

Croatia's prime minister may have been bolstered by parliament's vote of confidence but questions remain over his competence.

Racan Respite Could Be Short-lived

Croatia's prime minister may have been bolstered by parliament's vote of confidence but questions remain over his competence.

Croatian premier Ivica Racan has secured some breathing space after a vital vote of confidence in parliament. But question remains over whether he has what it takes to bring the country out of transition and into the European family. Moreover, does he want to do it soon?

After a long debate on July 15, exhausted deputies backed Racan's government decision to cooperate with The Hague tribunal and extradite two army officers accused of war crimes. Ninety-three deputies voted in favour of the government, 36 against. Racan's coalition partner Drazen Budisa, the former president of the Croatian Social Liberal Party and the main cause of the governmental crisis, was not present in parliament for the vote.

This first test for the government came amid great political upheaval caused by right-wing resistance to cooperation with The Hague and Budisa's repeated opposition to the actions of the main party in the ruling coalition, Racan's Social Democratic Party, SDP.

After weeks of turmoil over the Hague indictments, Racan seems to have scored an important short-term victory. In the process, he managed to get rid of Budisa, whose intransigence was perceived as a major obstacle to otherwise unified and efficient government.

After the vote of confidence, the government will not be challenged in the same way for at least six months. This is going to help Racan's position and reinforce some of his future decisions - the settlement of border issues with Slovenia, especially the much contested Piran bay question. The latter is likely to be the next issue to anger the opposition and possibly remaining coalition partners too.

The initial euphoria which greeted the defeat of the former HDZ administration eighteen months ago, has been replaced by open criticism of the new authorities, although Racan himself seems to have escaped the flack. It seems his government was surprisingly unprepared for the challenges of leadership.

This was even more surprising for the fact that Racan was not a newcomer to the business of ruling. President of the SDP, the Croatian variant of reformed communists, Racan has been a politician for most of his life, slowly climbing the party pyramid since the mid-1960s. His career started in the lower echelons of the Communist Party of Croatia. And aside from a short tenure as an assistant at a research institute in Zagreb, his political experience rested mainly within the party structure.

But there is an enormous difference between running a communist party in a totalitarian system, however decadent or lame it appeared to be in the 1980s, and being prime minister of a small country in transition, which is aspiring to become a viable European partner in the immediate future.

The way of working should be different and the demands of society at large are not comparable. The activities of the communist hierarchy required subdued dealings far from the eyes of the public and were done with complete indifference to it. The actions taken by the prime minister in the new republic are increasingly subject to questions from the media, politicians and the population at large, which demands clear and decisive leadership.

Although Racan tried, for the purposes of the 2000 election campaign, to present himself as a modern European politician, whose free time is usually spent amateur painting, another, less artistic side of his character became more obvious as he took office.

Slow and indecisive, Racan is now perceived as a typical bureaucrat, reluctant to take responsibility for political decisions and lacking a coherent vision of the country's development. As in the case of the Hague indictments, where it was sufficient to respect existing laws and take responsibility for implementing them, Racan decided to transfer responsibility for this to members of his cabinet.

When four HSLS ministers resigned their posts in accordance with Budisa's recommendations, Racan then sought a vote of confidence in a further attempt to shift responsibility, this time to parliament.

Unlike President Stipe Mesic, whose timely, short and clear public statements left little doubt about his support for the rule of law, Racan showed a reluctance to act forcefully in support of cooperation with The Hague or to accept full responsibility for that policy.

The change that was promised to the electorate in the beginning of 2000 came to virtually nothing. Racan has done precious little to destroy the Tudjman legacy in politics or in society at large. The reasons behind Racan's cautious approach are usually interpreted as a possible pay back to members of the HDZ who, during their ten years in office, left Racan and the SDP largely alone.

In Croatia, there is a need to proceed vigorously with reform. These reforms require the political will to implement structural changes. In the first instance, the state budget needs to be radically reduced. At present, 55 per cent is allotted to public expenditures. The reform of the economic and juridical system, serious cuts in numbers of administrative and bureaucratic personnel, the introduction of better tax laws and radical privatisation, would transform Croatia from an old -fashioned and largely corrupt party state into a modern, efficient, cheap and progress-oriented European country.

The prime minister and his cabinet need to change the way the politics of responsible government is practised. To reform itself and to become a member of the European community of nations, Croatia needs to take bolder steps and Racan's leadership skills need to improve beyond recognition.

Andrea Feldman is a historian in Zagreb and the International Secretary of the Liberal Party.

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