- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Croatia is poised to spearhead a broad-based conservative movement in the Balkans. Ivo Sanader, the leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the country's main opposition party, came to Washington last week and spoke about his vision for the future. An admirer of President Bush's "compassionate conservatism," Mr. Sanader stressed that he will implement a sweeping agenda of tax cuts, smaller government and economic deregulation should he become Croatia's next prime minister.
This is precisely what this small Balkan country of 4.5 million needs at the moment. And the fact that economic conservatism is being championed by the head of the HDZ is even more remarkable.
The party's founder, former President Franjo Tudjman, led Croatia's bloody drive for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Mr. Tudjman's regime, however, was criticized by many in the West for its authoritarian rule and rampant economic cronyism, in which public assets were plundered by the HDZ elite.
Although a principled nationalist who secured an independent Croatian state in the face of Serbian aggression, Mr. Tudjman had a poor economic record characterized by bureaucratic statism and pervasive corruption. Following his death in December 1999, the HDZ was swept from power and a center-left coalition government was elected on a platform of democratic reform and forging closer links with the West.
Yet the new administration in Zagreb has been unable to resolve Croatia's economic crisis. Unemployment is at 23 percent, and the country is saddled with a nearly $10 billion foreign debt. Its annual per capita income is slightly more than $4,000, which is half that of neighboring Slovenia, and only 60 percent of what it was prior to independence.
After revamping the HDZ into a Croatian version of the Republican Party, Mr. Sanader now seeks to use the electorate's growing frustration with the government's stalled agenda to form a center-right coalition that will capture power if early elections are called next year. His goal is to transform Croatia into a bastion of free-market capitalism that will serve as a model for the rest of the Balkans.
Borrowing from the playbook of President Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr. Sanader rightly argues that the best way to kick start Croatia's anemic economy is to slash income and business taxes, remove burdensome government regulations and reduce public spending.
Unlike Mr. Tudjman, Mr. Sanader is not a fiery Balkan blood-and-soil nationalist, but a Reaganite conservative who understands that Croatia has the potential to become one of the most prosperous countries in Europe and a force for democracy and human rights in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
Yet Mr. Sanader will never accomplish his political objectives until he does something no Croatian politician has been willing to do since the country gained its independence: confront the communist past.
Few people in Eastern Europe suffered under the iron grip of communism as much as the Croats. During the period of Tito's totalitarian rule from 1945 until his death in 1980, hundreds of thousands of Croat writers, priests, peasants and dissidents were murdered or sent to prison.
Rather than face up to this bloody legacy, Croatia's political leaders have chosen to sweep communism's crimes under the rug. The result is that the country's political and economic development has been stunted by a lingering neo-Marxist mindset.
The communist influence can be found everywhere. Croatia's President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan are ex-communists who have never apologized for their shadowy pasts. Many who worked for Yugoslavia's notorious secret police have not been fired from their positions, but continue to be employed in Croatia's intelligence services.
The country's economic life remains rife with Soviet-style bribery and cronyism. Trapped in a Titoist time-warp, many ordinary Croatians still do not understand that a free-market economy depends upon social habits such as self-reliance, a strong work ethic and personal responsibility virtues that were almost eradicated by decades of communist social engineering.
Hence, if Mr. Sanader is serious about leading a conservative revolution in the Balkans then he must start by immediately implementing sweeping decommunization. The massive public bureaucracy, which is dominated by the old guard opposed to economic reform, must be dismantled. A legal framework needs to be created that will protect private property rights and the rule of law, encouraging entrepreneurship and the creation of investment capital. Most importantly, Croatia's next leader must wage a vigorous campaign against corruption.
It is a tall order. But if Mr. Sanader wants to claim the mantle of Mr. Reagan and Lady Thatcher, he must first adopt the anti-communism of these conservative icons. Only then will he succeed in becoming the Bush of the Balkans.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.

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