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

Tudjman's Legacy Weighs Heavily Round Croatia's Neck

With the demise of its President, Croatia has a chance break with the past and move politically out of the Balkans and into Western Europe. But Franjo Tuijman's legacy will make the years to come difficult ones...
By Christopher Bennett

In the course of eight-and-a-half years in power the self-proclaimed father of the nation has sought and, in large part, succeeded in shaping Croatia in his own image. In the process, he has changed his country's reputation from that of a picturesque tourist destination which fell victim to Serbian aggression into that of a nasty, nationalist dictatorship.


When in 1991 Serb irregulars and the Yugoslav Army besieged the Croatian towns of Vukovar and Dubrovnik, laying waste the former and defacing the cultural heritage of the latter, it was impossible not to have sympathy for the Croatian cause.


But in the wake of the Sarajevo Accord of January 1992, which ended the war in Croatia and brought it international recognition, Tudjman revealed his true colors. He turned on his domestic opponents, clamping down on independent media and suffocating internal dissent. And he attempted to realize his vision of a Greater Croatia at the expense of Bosnia.


Tudjman's Bosnian foray proved both foolhardy and unsuccessful as, after early Croat gains, Muslim forces turned the tide of battle. As evidence emerged of atrocities committed by Croats against Muslims emerged, Croatia's reputation in the eyes of the world disintegrated. Meanwhile, following a string of military defeats in Central Bosnia, local Croats fled en masse.


Dissatisfaction in Croatia with their president's Bosnian war and military reverses led to a wave of high-level defections from Tudjman's Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), the ruling party, including Stipe Mesic, Yugoslavia's last president.


And in the next six years, the HDZ hemorrhaged many of its most talented and moderate members, including in 1998 Franjo Greguric, a former prime minister and special envoy to Bosnia.


Having failed to achieve his aims in Bosnia, Tudjman was rescued from the consequences of his policy by the intense US diplomacy that ended the Croat-Muslim war in 1994.


The Washington Agreement of March 1994 established a shaky Bosnian federation, which was supposed to be joined in a confederation with Croatia. In practice, however, it merely cemented the Croat-Muslim front lines and Tudjman continued to behave as if Croat-held territory in Bosnia was part of Croatia.


In the absence of war, Croatia was able to rearm and build up its military strength. In lightning strikes in May and August 1995 the Croatian Army seized most of the territory which Croatian Serb rebels had held for four years, and some 200,000 Serbs fled rather than risk living under Zagreb's rule. The remaining Serb-held enclave in Croatia was handed over two years later after a period of UN transitional administration.


Military victory and the capture of Knin, the centre of the Serb revolt in Croatia, in August 1995 was both Tudjman's moment of triumph and the beginning of the end for his political ideology. In the absence of the Serbian threat, the nationalism that Tudjman peddled lost its appeal among ordinary Croats, yet he was unable to change course.


Like many politicians who have been in power for too long, Tudjman became convinced that what was good for him must also be good for Croatia and confused his own interests and those of his party with the national interests.


Moreover, he genuinely believed that he was on a historic mission to forge a powerful Croatian state and that this required union between the Croats of Croatia and Bosnia. Indeed, his last significant public statement before entering hospital was about the need to create a third, Croat entity in Bosnia.


Tudjman's twisted brand of nationalism was a manifestation of the frustration he experienced during 25 years in the political wilderness after falling out of the Communist Party's graces in 1965.


Having joined Tito's partisans as a teenager, he was a colonel by age 23 and, after moving to the Yugoslav Army's headquarters in Belgrade, he became his country's youngest general at 38. He was one of the most privileged in communist Yugoslav society and became accustomed from a very early age to giving orders and being obeyed.


Tudjman's early historical writing -- which included the wartime history of his regiment -- reflected a deep Yugoslav patriotism and commitment to Titoist values. His opinions changed when, as head of Zagreb's Institute for the History of Working Class Movements, he began to research the Second World War. For he discovered that the conventional picture of that era, which he had, hitherto, accepted implicitly, did not tally with his investigations.


Much of Tudjman's early revisionist scholarship was a serious contribution to a better understanding of the Second World War. As a general he had access to sensitive documents other historians had not been able to get their hands on and these led him to the conclusion that a great historical injustice had been done to Croatia.


Controversy centers around estimates of war dead and, in particular, the number of dead from the Ustasa concentration camp at Jasenovac. Tudjman calculated that no more than 70,000 people of all nationalities could conceivably have been killed there, which was a fraction of the million plus dead that Serb historians were claiming at the time.


While the broad thrust of Tudjman's early findings have since been largely corroborated, Tudjman went on to undermine his own arguments over the next 25 years by dreaming up increasingly far-fetched conspiracy theories.


Tudjman's research had shattered the view of the world he had held as a young man. As a result, during the many years he brooded in political disgrace, he clung to his new beliefs with the zeal of a convert.


In his own mind he came to personify Croatia and Croat suffering, while the question of war dead evolved into a crusade. Anyone who disagreed with his findings or even anything that appeared to contradict them became to Tudjman part of a conspiracy to make Croatia appear "odious in the eyes of the world".


As the years went by and Tudjman became increasingly bitter, his views became more extreme, distanced from his original research, and tainted with anti-Semitism. Yet over the past decade, they have been the official Croatian position.


Tudjman leaves behind him a country in denial both about the events of the Second World War and its more recent past, obstructing the investigations of The Hague War Crimes Tribunal and risking international sanctions.


Parliamentary elections must take place before January 27 and opinion polls point to an opposition victory. However, that alone will not ensure a smooth transition to democracy for Croatia today is dominated by the HDZ in exactly the way that the Communist Party once dominated Yugoslavia.


Corruption and nepotism are rife, politically connected tycoons control the commanding heights of the economy and the army is a state within a state. Such vested interests cannot be overcome without a long hard fight.


In his book, The Impasses of Historical Reality, Tudjman wrote that: "Men and nations will only act rationally when they have exhausted all other options." Croatia may just have reached that point.


Christopher Bennett is a senior editor with IWPR and a founder member of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank focusing on the Balkans.


More IWPR's Global Voices