Samizdat 2000

A New Croatian Spring
Christine Stone


Text-only printable version of this article

Christine Stone practised at the English Bar as a lawyer specializing in crime and civil liberties before setting up the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a number of academic and journalist colleagues in 1992. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator and Wall Street Journal on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Her column now appears Thursdays on

Archived articles by Christine Stone

A New Croatian Spring

The New World Order Turns Against an Old Friend

Kosovo’s Borderlands

Georgia is on Everyone’s Mind

McCain Rocks the Vote

The Sad Tale of Croatian Independence

Christmas in Kosovo

Macedonia: the Next Balkan Flashpoint

Some Thoughts on the Killings in Armenia – Who did it and Why?

"Things are much better now" said one of Croatia's former ambassadors last week. He was dining in a Zagreb hotel with several foreign businessmen discussing the fabulous investment possibilities that have been opening up in Croatia since the death of Franjo Tudjman and the defeat of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government in parliamentary elections held in January.

Meanwhile, workmen in the same hotel were dismantling its unique Art Deco dining room turning it into a sparkling new casino. Down town, sex clubs are appearing and a new Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet will open soon. Bankruptcies are shooting up. In other words, 'reform' is underway in Croatia.

But, reforms of another kind are taking place. As one seasoned observer of the Croatian scene remarked "revenge and hatred" are at work in all areas of society. After 10 years in the wilderness, the six-party coalition government under the leadership of former Communists wants its pound of flesh and they have lost no time in going about getting it.

People are being dismissed from their jobs. Of course, this starts from the top as there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed from those who supported the opposition in the past and now expect some reward. Damir Begovic, the head of the Croatian electricity company for the past 10 years with no party affiliation, has been sacked. When representatives from a leading German electricity company who had cooperated with the Croats in the construction of a power station in Istria arrived in Zagreb they were told he had left. The head of the state petroleum company, INA, has also been dismissed. What about their contracts of employment, some might ask?

At a local level it was announced last week that all the administrative staff in the main hospital in Split on the Dalmatian coast have been removed and it is rumoured that the government has agreed to replace all officials at the local level. The head of the Zagreb police department, Jacob Bukvic, has been replaced by Ivan Babic former head of the police section of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A new head of the police has been appointed in Osijek-Baranja in the east of the country.

The most striking example of a Putsch came with the disbanding of Zagreb city council on March 10th. Two HDZ members suddenly handed in their resignations thus wiping out the party's majority. One was reputed to have been paid to do so. The other, an elderly man, complained that he had been tricked into signing a document which he only later realized amounted to his resignation. Without waiting for the results of an appeal to the High Administrative Court the government dissolved the council. New elections have been called for 7th May.

However, there have been no protests from all the usual quarters about this strange turn of events. When Tudjman himself failed to confirm the appointment of the mayor backed by a majority on Zagreb City Council in 1995 the matter was quickly taken up by the Council of Europe as a human rights issue. Not so today.

Education is also being targeted. The Croatian Studies Institute at Zagreb University is threatened with closure. Despite its name which might suggest the Institute is a narrow nationalist or jingoistic body, its syllabus is wide-ranging covering not only Croatian academic subjects but also international history, literature and languages as well as practical courses in computer science, even word processing. The philosophy syllabus includes philosophers from the Western analytical tradition, such as Richard Hare and John Rawls, as well as more familiar European thinkers like Heidegger and Jaspers.

A young Australian Croat who had been a strong critic of the former government testified to the professionalism of the Institute where he himself had studied, saying that its lectures and courses had always been popular and over-subscribed. Why then does it have to go? Many suspect that it is revenge on the part of many of the old guard at the university who despise Croat culture and hanker after the Yugoslav model. One reason for the Institute's founding was that after Tudjman's victory in the first multi-candidate elections in 1990 none of the old Communist Party-dominated faculty members at Zagreb University were purged. Any new academic blood either had to be approved by them or enter new institutions outside their control.

Now the old academic guard's political protectors of yesteryear are back in power. The new prime minister, Ivica Racan, was the Communist Party's ideological enforcer in much of its last years of monopoly power before 1990, when he was the Party's leader. He is unlikely to frustrate an academic purge initiated by the ex-Communist academic elite which has never forgiven Tudjman's few academic friends for not making martyrs out of them – despite their reputation as such in the Western universities who invited them as guest lecturers or among US foundations who funded their activities. (George Soros says that his Croatian Foundation's costs were the highest per capita in the world!)

Little reaction can be expected from the local media which, despite regular criticism from the international community, was controlled by the former opposition for much of the Tudjman era. The editor of the main pro-government newspaper Vjesnik was replaced at the beginning of the year. The new editor, Igor Mandic, is an old Yugoslav hand who was a columnist for many years for the Belgrade magazine Nin. When Vjesnik's leading columnist, Maya Freundlich, was dismissed there were no protests from media rights groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists or Helsinki Watch.

The mainstream press is owned by a large well-funded group, Europa Press Holdings, which publish the glossy weeklies Nacional and Globus as well as the daily paper Jutarni List. In the true spirit of media diversity the editor-in-chief of Globus, Mirko Galic, has moved over to become head of Croatian television – the previous head of HTV having been sacked as has the editor-in-chief.

All these papers have conducted vicious campaigns against the Tudjman regime in the past. It seems difficult to see how they can all survive in the future without their favourite bugbear. But, yet another title has appeared – Imperjial – which seems to cover the same ground.

The press presents a remorseless diet of corruption and sleaze which target former HDZ government politicians and party members. Huge sums of money are bandied about that put the gains of fraudsters like Robert Maxwell to shame – "I did not steal $750 million dollars" screams the headline on Jutarni List for the 9th April referring to allegations made against Davor Štern, the former director of INA, the state petroleum company. With the worst will in the world how can anyone steal sums like that from a small, poor country like Croatia with its lack of natural resources?

But the allegations have their effect. Readers like stories of corruption and sleaze as people in the United Kingdom know. The British Conservative Party was destroyed in public esteem in large part because of bribery allegations against Neil Hamilton, a Member of Parliament accused of taking cash bribes of a few thousand pounds before the 1997 general election. The mixture of prurience and resentment towards those better off or better known than oneself is an unfailing recipe for success. The constant drip of sleaze allegations also means that the former government is kept firmly in its place – down and out.

Several journalists working on the leading paper on the Dalmatian coast Slobodna Dalmatia also predict getting the sack. At best they will be allowed to work part-time on reduced salaries at worst they will be dismissed. Both Joško Celan and Zoran Vukman have not only criticized the new government they have also lamented what they perceive to be Croatia's subservience to the United States and Europe. In the eyes of the new government criticism of the West is almost as bad as criticism of their own domestic policies, for a very sensitive agenda is being played out. On the one hand, Croatia will be offered all the usual carrots – inclusion in Partnership for Peace leading to membership of NATO coupled with negotiations on future EU membership. But there will be a price to pay that, for many, threatens national sovereignty.

For one thing, the new Croatian government has promised to encourage Serbs who were driven out of the country's Krajina region during Operation Storm in 1995 to return to their homes. $55 million has been set aside by the US government to facilitate the process.

But, this will be easier said than done. The Krajina is one of the poorest and most inhospitable areas in Europe where farming and grazing over the centuries has turned the land into little more than scrub and rocks. The destruction of Serb houses in 1995 has made it even less hospitable. As the hard rhythm of life there has been interrupted following the mass flight of the Serbs in 1995 it is difficult to see how anyone could want to return and start life again. In December 1997 Krajina Serb refugees in and around Belgrade told me that they had no wish to go back – other than to arrange the sale of their property. In the event of a concerted effort to encourage repatriation only the elderly are likely to respond to the call.

The American aid is also likely to lead to tensions. Compared with Kosovo last year there has been massive destruction of property in the Krajina. The Croatian army, copying the tactics learned from their American mentors, operated a total scorched-earth policy tossing grenades into any building which might house snipers and burning everything in sight. Yet, there was only one large billboard in evidence announcing the imminent arrival of a USAID-funded policy of reconstruction to be seen in the region last week – at the village of Devrske. In an area of such deprivation the tensions between those who receive aid and those that don't can only be heightened.

However, if or when Serbs do return there will be other problems. Some Croats are living in their houses. Other Croats have returned to their own burned-out houses or are refugees in their turn from Bosnia or Kosovo. Will the lavish American funds be used to compensate them for allowing the previous owners to return? And, what if criminal elements start to appear?

The Krajina is an ideal place to harbour criminal activities with its abandoned houses suitable for concealing all manner of things and a local, poverty-stricken population. It is also close to Croatia's main port, Split, and many smaller ones. There are also potential future contacts to be had with Albania. Croat refugees from Kosovo have settled in the village of Kistanje where they eke out a living selling clothes and other bits and pieces at local markets. No one has a job and it is difficult to see what prospects there are for the young.

But the real purpose behind the West's clamour for the repatriation of Serbs is not kindness – it is strategic. A reactivated Serb population could always be used to temper any unacceptable manifestations of Croat nationalism in the future – as they did in 1991 when Croatian independence was originally declared. It is interesting to note that the Orthodox church has based two priests at a remote monastery in the Krk national Park in Krajina. Father Dosite returned to the monastery two years ago and is hoping that things will improve for Serbs with the new government in Zagreb. With his mobile phone and impeccable English he is ready to alert the outside world of trouble.

While many Croats resent the time and money spent by the international community on ensuring the return of Serbs to the Krajina the thing that really exercises them is their perception of themselves as being the real victims of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. More Croats have gone to the Hague than the other participants in the Bosnian war – many giving themselves up voluntarily in and after 1996 as a gesture of cooperation.

Nothing prepared them for the 45 year sentence handed down by the Tribunal on 3rd March to General Tihomir Blaškic for crimes committed in the Croat-dominated part of Bosnia in 1993-4, in particular for the massacre at Ahmici in 1993. While some of the more internationalist and self-hating Croats (like the historian Ivo Banac) thought he got what was coming to him, most people were shocked. A large demonstration took place outside the American Embassy in Zagreb and even people like the prime minister, Ivica Racan (himself hardly a Croat nationalist) protested. As the sentence was twice that handed out to Albert Speer at Nuremberg, they had a point.

The depth of national anger and despair over the Blaškic case may have prompted the government to look through their old drawers and cupboards. For, lo and behold, new documents have been recovered which, according to Blaškic's attorney, Anto Nobilo, may at best exculpate him completely or, at the very least, reduce the unprecedented sentence to a more acceptable level

It is hard not to be somewhat cynical about this turn of events as it does have something to offer everybody. For one thing, Croat public opinion will be assuaged if the tribunal accepts all – or even part – of Blaškic's appeal. The government gains in popularity while, simultaneously, the Tudjman regime is blackened. Any "new" evidence will likely lay the blame for Blaškic's crimes firmly at the door of the HDZ leadership. At the same time, the Tribunal which has developed a (well-earned) reputation as a kangaroo court can claim some well-needed kudos for its "clemency".

A successful appeal would also be helpful for public relations with the Croat army. Many people in Croatia fear that there will be a fresh Balkan war: once again against Serbia. The morale of the Croatian officer class is not helped by the thought that America and its allies are urging their removal to the Hague on war crimes charges. However, once a successful campaign has been mounted against Belgrade they can be sure that that will be the end of Mr. Nice Guy and they will be off to The Hague.

Croatia, then, is at the epicentre of what may be the "end game" in the present Balkan conflicts. But, on a more mundane level, it is also attractive to foreign investors with its fabulous tourist potential. To make it economically viable to the West the usual recipe will have to be applied – its large agricultural sector must be reduced and its industrial base (including a well-developed shipbuilding industry) destroyed. This will mean putting large numbers of people out-of-work. 40,000 have joined the ranks of the unemployed since the government came to power in January. There have already been stirrings of industrial unrest as wages and salaries remain unpaid. Added to which, many employees in the state sector have been forced to take a cut in their pay.

But privatization can now forge ahead as the EU, EBRD and IMF release funding to foreign investors. However, the government must tread carefully – it will have to sell to the right as well as the highest buyer. In its latest issue the rabid Croat weekly Nacional is already threatening prime minister Racan with the sack for not favouring American over European investors. Such high-handedness is only the latest reminder that no one in the US client states of the Balkans has a free hand, not even a former Party secretary with a North American wife, Sonja.

The US Embassy in Zagreb has fostered an alternative power centre to Racan's government. No one doubts the US-backing for Stipe Mesic, the freshly elected President of Croatia, who achieved a stunningly improbable victory in the February election to replace the dead Tudjman. Mesic's blind adherence to every jot and tittle of State Department policy means that Racan's genuine power-base in the old Communist institutions like the trades unions and apparatchik elite can be held in check by the considerable presidential powers Mesic has inherited from Tudjman, and whose diminution he now resists despite his campaign promises.

There is something eerily reminiscent of how Stalin or Tito raised up protégés only to topple them as traitors to the cause once they had served their purposes in the way the Clinton Administration turns on even ex-Communists when they show the slightest sign of independence. It seems that at the start of the 21st century American imperialism has not only overtaken Communism in the race for world domination but also in the tactics it is employing to get there.

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