Father of the Nation

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Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, who died last week at age 77, was an awkward autocrat. But he was also, according to Jacques Klein, a former senior U.N. official in Croatia during the Bosnian war and now head of Bosnia's U.N. mission, a true believer. "If he thought it was in Croatia's national interest then he was behind it. Logic, reason and intellect were not going to change his mind." Boris Raseta, a prominent Zagreb journalist and Tudjman biographer, has another view. "Tudjman," he says, "belonged to the 19th and not to the 20th century."

History, in fact, was Tudjman's obsession, and in Croatia's own national epic he cast himself in the leading role. He piloted the fledgling statelet out of Milosevic's Yugoslavia, through war and four years of occupation, to eventual recognition and independence. He oversaw the transition from a communist to a free market economy and adopted the outlines of democratic rule. Under his stewardship Croatia, unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, emerged from the wars of this decade with its prewar territory intact. But Tudjman's nationalism extended to racial preference and anti-Semitism. He flirted with Croatia's pro-Nazi, or Ustase, past. And a deepening sense of persecution in later years left him increasingly isolated.

Born in the village of Veliko Trgovisce 40 km north of Zagreb, Tudjman joined the partisan movement during World War II and later rose to become the youngest general in Josip Broz Tito's new Republic of Yugoslavia. His passion for history first expressed itself in 1961, when he quit the army to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Zagreb. Later, as head of the Institute for the History of the Workers' Movement, he began to openly question official accounts of Yugoslavia, especially what he claimed were overestimates of the number of people killed by Croatian Nazi sympathizers during the war.

For such heterodoxy Tudjman was stripped of his post in the Communist Party and at one point even jailed. Over the next 20 years, "he started believing in a Serb conspiracy against Croatia," says British historian Chris Bennett, "and that he was a martyr." When communism crumbled in 1989 Tudjman helped found the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which won an overwhelming victory in democratic elections held the next year and which remains in power today. One of Tudjman's first acts was to declare Serbs a minority, stripping them of their official "constituent status" in Croatia. He also restored Croatian pre-communist symbols such as the red and white checkered flag.

On June 25, 1991, Tudjman unilaterally declared independence from Yugoslavia. Two days later Croatian Serbs backed by Belgrade rebelled, launching a six-month conflict that devastated the eastern part of the country. When it was over, one-third of Croatia was under Serb occupation (later replaced by U.N. troops), but the international community had formally recognized Croatia.

After the war against "Serb aggression," Tudjman's nationalism hardened. He took the name Father of the Nation and branded critics "enemies of the state." He also took to claiming that neighboring Bosnia's Muslim majority was ethnically Croat, a twisted historical reading that supported his dreams of a greater Croatia. In 1992, with Tudjman's backing, Bosnian Croats declared the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna in western Bosnia. The next year Bosnian Croat forces supplied by Zagreb attacked Muslim positions and for 10 months the two sides tore Bosnia apart. Only the threat of international sanctions forced Tudjman to relent and agree to the formation of a Croat-Muslim federation.

Tudjman's ties with Bosnia remained strong and his support for hard-line nationalists in Bosnia has been blamed for undermining the peace process there. In recent years, his HDZ party swung even further to the right. The government established "a Latin American-type authoritarian regime," according to Ivan Zvonimir Cicak of Zagreb's Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. Tudjman donned a white naval uniform and bought a luxury yacht in an attempt to mimic some of the trappings of the more charismatic Tito.

His death leaves a vacuum in the entire region. In Zagreb, a struggle is under way for leadership of the HDZ. Some analysts wonder whether an organization of such disparate forces can hold together without Tudjman's personality at its core. More broadly, the weakening of the HDZ is expected to ease the way for the rise of the opposition in upcoming elections and, perhaps, the introduction of democratic reforms. It should also loosen the grip of hard-liners in Croat dominated parts of Bosnia.

At Tudjman's last press conference in October, a journalist asked politely about reports that he had been suffering from stomach cancer since 1996. "This speculation comes from people who would like a different Croatia from the one that I have created!" he boomed. Now a new Croatia is being created, but one that will bear Tudjman's imprint for generations to come.