The Sad Tale of Croatian Independence
Christine Stone
British Helsinki Human Rights Group

Special to

"An end to the era of fear, corruption and blood" declaimed David Jessell, front-man of the BBC’s Europe Direct news magazine on 25th January. Such hyperbole might have lead viewers to think they were going to be treated to a programme about the fall of Mobutu or Pol Pot. Not so.

Jessell was referring the death of Croatia’s president Franjo Tudjman last December and the election of a new Croat government in January of this year. After the second round of voting in the presidential election to be held on 6th February the country’s turnaround will be complete. In just two months Croatia will have gone from being the ‘Africa’ of the Balkans to another lucky aspirant for entry in to Euro-Atlantic structures.

Of course, many people will have agreed with Jessell. Ever since it declared its independence in 1991 Croatia has been under attack. Both Serbia and Bosnia have had their share of international patronage while Slovenia, after sliding away from Yugoslavia relatively painlessly, has been accepted without question as model of reform.

The bloody assault on Vukovar in 1991 and the economic depravations visited on the country by the Balkan wars have been conveniently forgotten. Attention is permanently focused on Croatia’s perceived rampant nationalism, its contribution to the misery in Bosnia, its expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina in 1995 and failure to cooperate with the ITCFY. These are the issues that serve, according to the US and the EU, to isolate Croatia from the political mainstream.

The debate is complicated by the fact that each Balkan faction has an axe to grind. Serbs hate Croats and vice versa; Albanians hate Serbs, Bosnians hate Serbs and Croats, and so on. To these people any attempt to explain each and the others’ point of view is a hopeless cause. However, such provincialism is set to condemn them all. For, acting alone, they are easily picked off, their independence threatened by powerful foreigners with their stability pacts and other projects for integration into this or that alliance be it the EU, NATO or the WTO.

Unlike Slovenia, Croatian independence was brought about by dissidents and ex-Communists. They formed a party, the Croatian Democratic Union, (HDZ) which governed uninterruptedly until last December. The Croatian Communist Party, renamed the Social Democratic Party (SDP), failed to get into government during the 1990s. No doubt, its leaders reformed or otherwise, felt cheated. They were meant to inherit the levers of power after the collapse of the central Yugoslav state like their colleagues had done in Ljubljiana.

However, the newly independent Croatia soon became an easy target for these people and their supporters in the West. For one thing, the country’s first president Franjo Tudjman was an unashamed patriot who pranced around in military uniform. Tudjman a former Partisan and general in the JNA had been imprisoned for his dissident activities in the 1970s. Other members of the HDZ had also fallen foul of the former regime.

But the Communism was quickly forgotten and attention focused on Croatia’s wartime fascist Ustashe regime. Any reference to the past – including the country’s checkerboard flag – was deemed to be a ‘fascist’ symbol, even though it had been in existence for hundreds of years.

Croatia was also unacceptable to the modern elites in another way: it is a deeply religious country whose population strongly supports the Roman Catholic church. Communist-era allegations soon resurfaced of the late Cardinal Stepinac’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis.


In the early days there were reasonable oppositionists in Zagreb, including many Jewish intellectuals who objected, in particular, to the demonization of Stepinac who had hidden many Jews during the war. There were other moderates, including the present presidential contender, Drazen Budisa. But the mood was against moderation and as the nineties proceeded the extremists took over.

Newspapers appeared that constantly attacked the HDZ, the most extreme being the Split-based weekly Feral Tribune hailed by its Western fans as another Private Eye or Canard Enchaîné. But the wit and sophistication of both these publications was sadly lacking in the paper’s diet of funny mockup pictures – a pregnant Franjo Tudjman, Milosevic and Tudjman embracing in ‘leathers’ were typical examples. Somewhat reminiscent of the Weimar agitprop satirist John Heartfield, it was crude and tasteless which, no doubt it was meant to be.

Several times, Tudjman and others sued Feral Tribune for libel for which he was roundly condemned by various international outfits promoting press freedom. However, such people remained silent when Tudjman lost cases he had brought against the newspaper something, one would think, they should have applauded for demonstrating the independence of the Croatian judicial system. But, as usual, these groups maintain a selective approach to everything, including press freedom: President Havel’s resort to the Czech libel laws has never caused them such indignation.

The opposition press and a growing number of NGOs and human rights groups in Croatia were united in one important way: they were the exponents of ‘cool’ as against the old-fashioned, folksy ‘nationalists’ of the HDZ and Tudjman. Later, they were joined by independent media, like Radio 101,which pumped out a diet of rock music and counter-cultural messages. The tyranny so hysterically proclaimed by the likes of David Jessell allowed all this to go on. For the busybodies it was axiomatic that there was no press freedom in Croatia.

Nevertheless, almost exponentially, as the ‘tyranny’ grew so did the number of anti-government newspapers and magazines. A glossy weekly, Tjednik, funded by USAID among others, appeared in time for the presidential election in 1997, but soon folded. However, nothing was to compare with the impact created by the daily Nacional which started publication in 1995. A professional product that was obviously well-financed, it also attracted high-profile columnists including, at one time, the wife of the American ambassador to Croatia, William Montgomery. It is probably this paper’s ability to get its message across to the Croat public that contributed largely to the fall of the HDZ.

A diet of tales detailing the rabid corruption of the elite poured forth from Nacional’s printing presses. No doubt, there was some truth in much of this, although a glance through typical offerings reveals more hyperbole than fact. But newspapers the world over have always gained readers by pandering to the envy and distrust of elites. Britain’s Guardian newspaper did much to bring down the last government by its revelations of sleaze in the Conservative party. Similarly, in Croatia, by the time elections came to be held in 1999 Nacional had built up a compelling case for driving the HDZ from power.

The situation was very similar in newly-independent Slovakia. After Vladimir Meciar’s party, the HZDS, came to power it, too, was attacked for fascism and sneered at for its support for traditional Slovak culture. A well-funded (frequently subsidised) ‘independent media’ flourished that regularly attacked the government for everything from corruption to murder while an ‘independent’ radio station, Radio Twist, pumped out a diet of rock music and antigovernment propaganda.


Nevertheless, none of this exempts the Croat government from blame for the country’s woes. Far from it. But many of their weaknesses resulted from desperate attempts to curry favour with the international community rather than to ‘isolate’ themselves, as the propaganda had it. Croatia’s problems have resulted not only from war and instability in the region but also from a slavish desire to follow (inappropriate) economic prescriptions from the EU and IMF. The cult of macro-economic "stability" with an overvalued currency and high taxes have all too predictably led to stagnation and high levels of unemployment.

It is still absurd to talk, as some critics have done, of the country as ‘Africa in the Balkans’. That description might well be applied to Romania where teachers are on strike for a pay rise – they now receive $80 per month – whereas the Croats have been described as "Third World" for having an average monthly salary of c.$400, low but well above the levels in the favoured Partnership for Peace countries of the region like Romania or Bulgaria whose impoverished ranks Croatia may now hope to join.

While the European Union took the lead in criticizing Croatia’s economic policies (for instance its open border with Bosnia-Hercegovina instead of strict customs controls – something hardly advocated elsewhere by Brussels), the United States battered away on the human rights front. However, this was a somewhat delicate issue as the Americans had often spoken with forked tongues. At crucial moments, Clinton needed the Croats to further his Balkan policy, most notably in 1995 when the Serb population was driven from the Krajina region. This enabled NATO to act by isolating the Bosnian Serbs and bringing the parties to the Bosnian war to the negotiating table at Dayton. Similarly, in 1999 the US needed permission to overfly Croatia during the Kosovo campaign. Ever willing to oblige, the Croats agreed with enthusiasm. No doubt, they relished the thought of the Serbs being given a bloody nose. They also thought that – perhaps, at last – they really were going to be loved by the Big White Chief in the West.

Again, they were rebuffed. Far from gratitude for the events in the Krajina, the Sate Department and its protégées in The Hague started to issue veiled threats about war crimes’ trials for those involved in the chain of command. In many peoples’ minds, wars from the past started to become entangled with present woes: how would the ICTFY handle the case of General Agim Ceku, one of the commanders of the Croat army during Operation Storm since reinvented as senior general in the KLA and hero of Kosovo’s liberation?

On a more trivial, yet symbolic, level the US snubbed the Croats by refusing to send a high-level official to Tudjman’s funeral. Nor were there the usual diplomatic expressions of sorrow: "the State Department notes…." began the official US response to the president’s death. Even leftist newspapers, like Britain’s Independent thought this was a bit much. The US regularly danced attention at the graves of dictators and tyrants with whom the rather pompous and outdated figure of Tudjman failed to compare.

Bad taste ruled the day: many opponents of the late president complained that he had deliberately timed his death to bring about an election during the (unsuitable) holiday period ! They also predicted that the HDZ would promote a Tudjman cult that would damage the opposition’s chances in the forthcoming parliamentary election. In fact, the president’s funeral was a rather dingy, low-key affair. By early January there was no evidence of Tudjman – no photographs or other memorabilia – anywhere in Zagreb’s public places.

Since independence, the opposition parties had remained resolutely divided and weak but by 1999 they seemed to have buried their differences and formed workable coalitions. By the time of the parliamentary elections the government’s fortunes were so low everyone expected a change of regime.

The HDZ had only compounded all its other problems by infighting. There were those, like the former Foreign Minister, Mate Granic, who wanted a role in the whole package that was on offer: Euro-Atlantic structures, NATO membership, the EU. They never said it openly, but they were obviously prepared to compromise on all sorts of issues, including Croat sovereignty, to belong to these organizations. On the other hand, there were those (including Tudjman) who feared that the country’s independence was under threat from meddling foreigners. They were labelled ‘paranoid’ but much of the evidence proves that they were right.


For example, there are the aforementioned NGOs which swarm around the country. Some operate on the back of UN structures set up to promote peace and reconciliation in the areas most affected by the war. Others promote the usual cocktail of gender and media freedom. The level of hostility to Croatia has absorbed much time, attention – and money. Even the Open Society’s reputation for generosity has been stretched. On one occasion, those in charge of the Zagreb branch asked for such a high level of funding in such suspicious circumstances that monitors were dispatched from headquarters in New York to investigate.

The Open Society in Croatia funds, (along with the British government-subsidised Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the EU) the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights, the Women’s Ad Hoc Coalition as well as other women’s organizations like Zenska Infoteka, ( also funded by the Dutch Embassy and Norwegian Peoples’ Aid) and BaBe – Be Active, Be Emanciapted – which, apart from Soros, also gets money from the European Commission. These are just the tip of the NGO iceberg.

As the election approached funding was also directed from these and other sources like USAID to two other NGOs GONG and Vote 99.

GONG is an ‘independent’ group of domestic election observers which had been set up in anticipation of the 1999 elections. Similar groups have monitored elections mainly in the former Soviet Union where polling practices, to say the least, have been somewhat dubious. Why Croatia needed such blanket oversight is not obvious. Organizations like the OSCE had criticized aspects of the Croat elections in the past but had never alleged cheating in the polling stations. With an international presence in place it is hard to see why such people were necessary. Unless, of course, they were there to make some kind of statement on the lines of "Although we are, of course, ‘independent’ we are also young, wear jeans, t-shirts and Western sneakers. Don’t you want to be like us too?"

It is also probably true that the opposition were not completely confident, despite its lead in the polls. Things have gone wrong in other places on election day for Western-sponsored opposition parties. If that had happened in Croatia, the GONG observers would have been there with a litany of complaint detailing all the infringements of the poll that had taken place in front of their eyes. In the event it was not necessary to revert to what we might call ‘Plan B’.

The other election-orientated NGO, Vote 99 was set up shortly before the election to encourage people to vote, or, to be more exact, to encourage young people to vote. A similar group Rock Volieb (Rock the Vote) had operated in Slovakia prior to the 1998 poll and had been judged a success. As well as putting on ghastly rock concerts, Vote 99 volunteers leafleted people and distributed flyers.

Presumably, the Group’s funding was based on its independent credentials, which, on examination were not worth the paper they were written on. In an article published in Nacional on 27th October 1999 a spokesman for the Group boasted about its campaign to hold government ministers to account by distributing their personal telephone numbers to members of the public. Would this sort of thing be allowed in the United States and Western Europe?

Further reading of the article confirms one’s suspicions that groups like this are modeled on the old Soviet agitacni as well as Fascist activisti in prewar Italy. They maintain that the public should have access to all government buildings and deliberations at all time of day adding, totally incorrectly, that this is the case in Western Europe. As members of the public are neither allowed to congregate within one mile of the Bundestag or the Chancellor’s bungalow in Berlin nor to enter Downing Street which is closed to the public behind iron gates, one wonders to what country the Croat civic activists are referring when they claim that such access is the norm.

But fact or fiction, that is not the point. The idea is to demonstrate to the Croat public (most of whom have no direct experience of the functioning of other Western democracies) that their government is uniquely secretive, high-handed and unaccountable – and should be got rid of if Croats are to hope to enter the Elysium of true European or US style democracy and prosperity. It will be interesting to see whether or not the likes of Vote 99 hold the new government to account and continue to demand free access to all government buildings.


Accessibility, therefore, is all the rage. The new Prime Minister, Ivica Racan, we are told, wears jeans and goes to rock concerts, a gruesome thought for a 56-year-old, some might think. He is also just like you and me, even smoking and inhaling pot in the past. Presidential candidate Stipe Mesic is also ‘right on’. He has adopted the slogan "Fancy a cup of coffee with the president – lets go" for his presidential campaign. How unlike the last lot who wore suits and listened to folk music.

But it is probably too late for the tide to turn. Mesic faces former dissident and Liberal Party head Drazen Budisa in the run-off to the presidential election to be held on Monday, 7th February. Budisa and Racan are joint heads of the winning coalition and it was assumed a perfect symmetry would be achieved when Budisa won the presidency, as anticipated. But something has gone badly wrong.

In the weeks following the parliamentary poll Stipe Mesic, the last representative of Croatia on the Yugoslav collective presidency and former Tudjman associate, has to coin a phrase, ‘come from nowhere’. His party, the Croatian People’s Party, barely overcame the threshold for entry into parliament and, at 65, he is somewhat long in the tooth. All of a sudden he is "witty" and "urbane" rather than a mountebank with no known political principles. But to the world of Albright and company he has several very attractive qualities.

Mesic has vowed to abandon the Herzogovinan Croats, a thorn in the side of the international community’s efforts to properly pacify Bosnia. He has also personally provided evidence of Croat war crimes to the ITCFY where he could, theoretically, be called as a witness. Other candidates have been more circumspect, including Budisa. But Mesic, a person of no known scruples, seems happy to give evidence against his fellow citizens in a forum strongly criticized for its flawed procedures and overtly political agenda. He has also made florid charges and threats against former HDZ officials: "I’m certain " he says "that many people will be brought before the courts". This contrasts somewhat sharply with the Western media’s presentation of Mesic as a tolerant forgiving figure. He has also hinted that he will keep hold of the "reins of government" even if he will get rid of some symbols like the fancy-dress guards outside the presidential office and the presidential plane.

This could explain why his election campaign has taken off and seems to be so lavish. Even the Nacional has hinted that he is supported by American money. It seems he will win, but whether he goes on taking the tram with his fellow citizens and joins them for cups of coffee remains to be seen. These seem to be the only concrete proposals to reduce the powers of the presidency despite opposition hype that this would be one of its first acts on taking power.


Before the post-Kosovan war Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe was set up there was much heart – searching about Croatia’s participation in the scheme which could only happen if it became a ‘proper democracy’. However, there was confidence that the ‘Slovak model’ would ensure that changes occurred after the forthcoming election.

The Slovak model goes thus: if there is a government you don’t like accuse it of fascist/communist leanings and human rights abuse. Inject large sums of money to pay local non-government organizations and ‘independent media’. Pump out propaganda to the locals suggesting that, unless they change their government they will be poor and isolated. Hint that elections will be manipulated and introduce all kinds of foreign and domestic ‘monitors’ to intimidate voters. Battered and bewildered, the evil ones are seen off and the prize – entry into all kinds of international clubs – is immediately on offer.

However, for ordinary Slovaks the benefits of voting the ‘right’ way may not now seem so obvious. The country has the highest unemployment level in Europe – 23%. The governing coalition is squabbling and battles for privatisation – which were supposed to be so transparent – continue.

Croatia can expect much of same. Entrance to Partnership for Peace means ‘modernizing’ the army – in other words, seriously reducing its size and potential to defend the country in the future. Entrance to Europe (which the European House in Zagreb says should take place at "any cost") means letting foreign fishermen use its Adriatic waters and cutting back on agriculture. Cooperation with the IMF and future WTO means opening up the privatisation process to foreigners which could mean unsympathetic development on the country’s beautiful Dalmatian coast.

Croatia is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. Its former government – and Franjo Tudjman – probably thought that the West would welcome its independence. How wrong they were. In 1991 the world of the British Foreign Office and the US State Department did not want Yugoslavia to break up. It has taken them nearly 10 years to be on the brink of putting it back together again under the subterfuge of the Stability Pact.

Croatia was one of the last dominoes to fall. Only Serbia remains. Already NATO states are funnelling $50 million a year to the Serbian opposition, "independent media" and NGOs (according to open sources). That wall of money is intended to buy the votes of the rock and roll generation and the confused and alienated population while drowning out important questions about the economic and social consequences of entering Tony Blair’s Orwellian "zone of democracy and prosperity." NATO is busy putting the Balkan Humpty-Dumpty back together again. But, how long will its plaster hold?

Christine Stone is director of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group and observed the recent elections in Macedonia for the BHHRG. Other reports on the Balkans by BHHRG can be found on the Group's web-site at

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