- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2000

Stipe Mesic brings more to the Croatian presidency than a past with a prison sentence for begging the communists for more democracy. Inaugurated Feb. 18 to replace the late authoritarian leader Franjo Tudjman, Mr. Mesic is the West's hope for the Balkans. Pledging to reduce presidential powers and get Croatia into the European Union within five years, he has an agenda that aims to strengthen international ties and bring justice to the Balkan killing fields.

Such drastic reform doesn't come easy in a region torn for years by war and ethnic divisions, though. Already a group of Herzegovina Croat generals have threatened assassination of the president, according to the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA. Mr. Mesic isn't impressed. He confirmed the threats last week though the Croatian embassy could not but wasn't about to let the generals gloat. "Generals have never carried out assassinations," he told the Zagreb-based daily, Vjesnik.

The martial arts practitioner turned president will need all the confidence he can muster for his five-year term. In his own country, one out of five workers is unemployed, salaries don't get paid, and there is large foreign debt. Next door, the town of Mitrovica in Kosovo was labeled "the most dangerous place in Europe" by Richard Holbrooke, with severe unrest forcing more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians to leave in just the last two weeks.

Mr. Mesic brings to this chaos what other Balkan leaders to this point have been unable to: a willingness to unite the Balkans, while diminishing his own role. He was willing to have his power strongly checked by the parliament, with the legislature expected to take over as the primary power after eight months of his presidency. He plans to allow 300,000 Serbs to return to Croatia who were forced out during the Balkan conflict from 1991-1995. He is also willing to testify in the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague as a witness against Slobodan Milosevic.

The good news is, he has two reform-minded supporters to help him keep his campaign promises. The Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency has come to power recently with similar goals for international ties and a stronger relationship with Croatia. And his own wife is a Serb whose family was killed in Croatia's Nazi concentration camps. Those unions should provide strong incentive to keep him from repeating his predecessors' mistakes. The United States should do everything it can to keep that momentum going.

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