Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Secretly Sick Man Of Europe - Tudjman Fights Disease And HDZ Decline

The health of President Franjo Tudjman is subject of much speculation in Croatia in the run-up to parliamentary elections. If the opposition wins a two-thirds majority, it may attempt to chop back his near absolutist powers.
By Drago Hedl

Three months before Croatia goes to the polls in parliamentary elections, the country's independent press is filled with speculation about the health of the president.


According to Nacional, the well-informed Zagreb weekly, "Franjo Tudjman is once again encountering grave problems with his health: he finds it difficult to move, his hair is rapidly falling out, his face is pale and exhausted with clear signs of a difficult battle with a vicious disease."


However the usual official response to such stories is denial. This habit began, along with Tudjman's serious health problems, real or denied, in November 1996 when Tudjman was treated at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington.


According to US officials he was treated for stomach cancer. This diagnosis was later denied by Croatian officials, who confirmed he was at the hospital but said he was suffering from much less serious digestive problems, stomach ulcer and enlarged abdominal lymph nodes.


It later came to light that Tudjman's own Croatian doctors had failed to diagnose their president's condition and were thus unable to offer him appropriate treatment. After Tudjman lost 10 kilos in weight, then defence minister Gojko Susak arranged his secret transfer to the United States with the help of the then US defence secretary William Perry.


The correct diagnosis of Tudjman's condition might have been kept from the Croatian public. However, the information was leaked in the United States and reported on CNN.


Tudjman returned to Croatia after several days, angry that details of his condition had leaked. At the time, he looked ill, and many in Zagreb's diplomatic community began preparing for life after Tudjman's death. Indeed, on the basis of rumours emanating from sources in the Walter Reed hospital, it was widely believed that the Croatian president only had another six months to live.


Preparations for the post-Tudjman era were, however, premature. Nearly three years have gone by since the Croatian president's hospitalisation in the United States and not only is Tudjman alive, but he is still in power.


Physically, Tudjman's cancer has had a noticeable impact. His once thick head of grey hair has thinned and his complexion is paler. Moreover, according to aides who are in daily contact with him, the disease also appears to have taken a psychological toll.


Whereas once he was prone to long monologues in meetings and official lunches, always making sure that he had the last word, now, it seems he keeps mostly quiet appearing to have little interest in most matters, with the exception of football which still generates deep passion.


As a result of Tudjman's apparent lack of energy, many analysts have begun to ask whether the president remains capable to lead his country.


The question is of special importance since Tudjman's powers, which he effectively drew up for himself, are enormous, indeed almost absolutist, and Croatia is facing an especially uncertain period. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place early next year; the economic crisis has been exacerbated by a poor tourist season in the wake of the Kosovo war; and social tensions are rising.


In the wake of press speculation, Tudjman made two public appearances. He spoke at a ceremony marking the opening of a factory, and then at a folk festival in Slavonia. Despite these engagements, however, most analysts believe that his speeches are no longer as forceful and as powerful as they used to be.


Earlier this year, after a state visit to Turkey in February, Tudjman's physical condition began to deteriorate as a result of a bout of flu and resulting complications.


On that occasion, French doctors at the Gustave Roussy Institute for Cancer in Paris, managed to halt his decline with a new form of treatment, but Croatian medical experts now believe that the technique will not be as effective a second time around. Tudjman's body has been exhausted by many sessions of many different treatments, and it is therefore uncertain how the illness will develop in the future.


Although the independent press and opposition politicians insist that the details of the health of the head of state be made public, the only official response is that Tudjman is in good health and remains capable of carrying out his duties.


A sign that all is not well, however, is that it is still uncertain whether Tudjman will become involved in the electoral campaign of his party, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ). In previous elections, even when the party was in a far stronger position than today, Tudjman has always been at the helm, directing the campaign.


According to opinion polls, the HDZ is facing a massive defeat in the upcoming election and may even fail to win a third of the votes.


Electoral defeat for the HDZ will not necessarily affect Tudjman personally, since his presidential mandate runs until 2002. However, if the opposition manages to win a two-thirds majority, it may seek constitutional changes to limit the presidential powers.


Croatian 'cohabitation' could therefore lead to a period of dangerous political instability, since it is difficult to envisage Tudjman relinquishing his powers without a struggle. Indeed, many analysts fear that, as his health fails, Tudjman may ally himself with the autocratic right of the HDZ.


It makes for an uncomfortable few months ahead, with many in the more radical faction of the HDZ, which controls the army and the police, already advocating a military coup and dictatorship, rather than risk defeat in elections.


Drago Hedl is home affairs editor of the Rijeka daily Novi List.