- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 1999

A single red rose decorated the hood of the hearse of Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman as it made its way toward the presidential palace in Zagreb Friday. For the Serbs and Muslims he had helped cleanse from the region as Croatia fought for independence from Yugoslavia, the flower could serve as a symbol of hope for a new era of peace. Yet for the tens of thousands of Croats who turned out to pay their last respects, the passing of Croatia’s only president and father of independence was cause for mourning. Regardless of what ethnic background they may have, those who have called Croatia home have some soul-searching to do in the wake of Tudjman’s mixed legacy.

Even now Croatian authorities are blocking a United Nations war crimes investigation against Mr. Tudjman’s government offensives which ethnically cleansed Serbs from Croatia, making up to 300,000 Serbs refugees in three days in 1995. As part of the same effort, Mr. Tudjman’s men also fought against the Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, contributing to the three-and-a-half-year war there.

Though Mr. Tudjman has often been likened in nationalist outlook to his Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, he has managed to deflect at least some criticism. Also working in his favor was the fact that the Serbs were on their own even more murderous campaign against the Croats in the early 1990s, as Yugoslavia split apart. Directly or indirectly, crimes perpetrated against the Muslims and Serbs occurred during and under his rule.

Now Croatia must decide what it will do with the Tudjman legacy. To continue to block the war crimes investigation will show the world it is still not ready to deal with the recent past. To exercise its statehood created so proudly through mr. Tudjman’s own efforts in 1991, the year after he won the presidency by continuing to promote an ultranationalist party will not help heal the wounds of the region.

The West’s pick is foreign minister Mate Granic, who aims toward integration with Europe and has been the most helpful in Mr. Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government in dealing with the War Crimes Tribunal. Another potential successor, Ivic Pasalic, has the backing of extremists and deputies within the HDZ who oppose the Dayton peace accord, the U.S.-brokered Bosnian peace deal created in 1995. He is rallying for the political independence of Croatians within Bosnia. Mr. Tudjman’s party as a whole is not likely to gain power in the Jan. 3 elections, but Croats and international monitors must be wary of other ultranationalist alternatives.

With Mr. Tudjman gone, Croatia has an unprecedented opportunity to move forward towards integration in Europe and towards rebuilding a sense of justice after the Balkan killing fields. To lose that purpose in the mourning would be an even greater tragedy.

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