- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 1999

The Tudjman era has drawn to a close and the time is ripe for sober reflection and calm prognosis. Looking back over the last decade of Croatian statehood, President Franjo Tudjman’s record is at best a mixed one. In sum, the positive aspects of his legacy are overshadowed by negatives that have diverted the country from its place in the European community.The often heard claim that Mr. Tudjman was the father of the Croatian nation may have been understandable during a period of uncertainty and insecurity, but it is also misleading for several important reasons. It has clearly suited the ruling party to create a personality cult around the president as it provides a veneer of legitimacy to its monopoly over power and resources. It also justifies the slow progress of domestic democratization and Croatia’s international integration.
There are three grounds for treating the “fatherhood” or “savior” syndrome with healthy skepticism: historical, developmental, and sociological. Historically, Mr. Tudjman was a former communist, Titoist, and Yugoslavist. Being a ranking ex-communist does not of course disqualify him or anyone else from changing their views and their policies. But the myth of political invincibility must be finally laid to rest.
More significantly, Mr. Tudjman’s role during the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the birth of the modern Croatian state needs careful scrutiny. Evidence indicates that the president and his retinue were naive and unprepared for the Serb-Yugoslav assault in 1990-1991.
Croatia was militarily vulnerable and socially exposed while its leaders continued to harbor hopes that they could negotiate with Slobodan Milosevic. As a result of ineptitude and shortsightedness by the president and his men, thousands of Croats may have needlessly perished or were forcibly expelled from their homes.
Mr. Tudjman’s record in Bosnia-Hercegovina proved even more appalling. Not only were arms diverted from the defense of Vukovar and other Slavonian cities to Zagreb’s Hercegovina loyalists, but the president evidently planned to carve up the country with Mr. Milosevic.
Despite Dayton and the NATO presence, Zagreb has apparently still not revoked its separatist and irredentist policies that prevent Bosnia from becoming an integrated state. Mr. Tudjman’s motives were both ideological and personal. He wanted to be glorified in history as the creator of Croatia in its “full ethnic boundaries.” At the same time, his agenda has been strongly driven by financial and political support from certain migr lobbies with pretensions to western Hercegovina.
Developmentally, Mr. Tudjman’s tenure stifled the emergence of a modern pluralistic society adapted to the rigors and benefits of Europeanization. The personalized and highly centralized leadership could justify itself up to a point in calling for Croatian unity and resolve during the period of Serb occupation along the border areas. But in many respects the occupation itself suited the Zagreb elite. Under the pretext of defending “national interests” the rulers could impose quasi-authoritarian measures without losing the bulk of their public support.
Under Mr. Tudjman, state propaganda also assumed a hostile anti-American tone. Government organs accused Washington of interfering in the country’s internal affairs and of seeking to undermine the government, even while American assistance for the Croatian military helped to forge a modern army that routed the obsolete Serb forces in 1995. U.S. assistance for civic parties, human rights groups, and the free media was intended to help Croatia become a Central European state in preparation for future NATO and EU membership. But this assistance was perversely depicted as actually threatening Croatian sovereignty.
Mr. Tudjman’s politics alienated the international community and even led some commentators to brand Croatia a fascist state a clearly nonsensical allegation. Paradoxically, such attacks suited the ruling elites, who could claim that the country was being deliberately singled out for punishment while being defended by the president.
Sociologically, the Tudjman era disfigured Croatian society in several important ways. Instead of stimulating the development of an entrepreneurial and competitive middle class, it favored political loyalists in the construction of a privileged patronage network.
In sum, the process of Croatia’s economic, political, and international development has been delayed; but it has not been derailed as in Serbia or Belarus. Croatia is too sophisticated a society to be kept in a box for long. Croats have demonstrated that they are determined to win and keep their statehood, despite the obstacles stacked against them. Nationhood, self-identity, and self-confidence are essential ingredients for social and economic development.
The forces of tolerance, open-mindedness, and critical thinking are alive and well despite continuous attempts to thwart them. And once the appropriate political changes are implemented, Croatia may soon emerge as a progressive European state that will gain its rightful place in NATO, the EU and all other pan-European institutions.
If Mr. Tudjman taught the Croatian people one thing above all, it is this: You cannot ultimately impose a system of autocracy over a population that yearns for the freedoms for which so many Croats laid down their lives.

Janusz Bugajski is director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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