Croatian President Franjo Tudjman

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 10 1999 3:30 AM

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman

The Balkans' (not much) lesser evil.

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Domestically, Tudjman has displayed a similar gift for conceding just enough to seem reasonable. Croatia is ostensibly a democracy, but it has functioned under Tudjman like a semi-fascist dictatorship. Tudjman, who is fond of Il Duce-type uniforms, rigged the parliamentary elections so that his nationalist party, HDZ, could not lose. (For example, he guaranteed Bosnian Croats, who are wildly nationalistic, 12 seats in the parliament--even though they don't live in Croatia.) Tudjman has suppressed independent media and used his control of state television like a club. During the last presidential campaign, according to Galbraith, Tudjman received 250 times as much TV time as his opponent. Tudjman has putatively supported capitalism, but his idea of free enterprise is to privatize industries and give them to his friends. (The Croatian economy, which ought to be thriving from beach tourism and low-wage manufacturing, is a mess.)

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This corruption and authoritarianism have irked democracy advocates, but it has not been enough to fully discredit Tudjman. The West dropped its arms embargo. Europe, albeit reluctantly, admitted Croatia into the Council of Europe. Once Tudjman dies, a more democratic Croatia is likely to be admitted to the European Union. Almost everything Tudjman wished for has come true. He has built an independent Croatia, driven virtually all its Serbs and Muslims into exile, and won Croats semi-autonomy in Bosnia. He is, as one writer put it, the "efficient ethnic cleanser." Milosevic, meanwhile, has turned Yugoslavia into a pariah state, its economy destroyed, its ambitions for Greater Serbia quashed.

Even in dying, Tudjman is proving his gift for pragmatic villainy. Tudjman is reportedly suffering from stomach cancer that has metastasized. According to most reports from Zagreb, Tudjman is brain dead and has been for some weeks. Croatia analysts surmise that HDZ is keeping Tudjman alive as a campaign strategy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early January, and HDZ is trailing the less nationalistic opposition in the polls. HDZ seems to be trying to time his death for maximal electoral benefit, hoping to generate a swell of patriotic sympathy that will help the party on election day. Tudjman, who built his career on such cold, grotesque, and highly effective sleaziness, would surely appreciate the compliment.