Leading Article: It is time Europe's leaders took Croatia into the fold

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IT WAS only 20 years ago that world leaders were practically fighting for front-row seats at the funeral of that famous Croat Josip Tito, president of Yugoslavia. Yesterday, presidents and crowned heads were less in evidence among the crowds attending the obsequies of another Croat leader, Franjo Tudjman. Croats may be united in grief at the passing of the man they call the father of the nation, but the world, it seems, was more relieved than sorry to see him go.

It was not just that Tudjman was a strutting autocrat in an age of democracy, or even that he was a constant meddler in the affairs of that proverbial Balkan tinderbox, Bosnia. The world held Croatia's first president at least partly responsible for the collapse of the Yugoslav federation that Tito had so painfully constructed. Most of the big powers - Britain and France among them - never wanted to see an independent Croatia. After Germany had forced them to recognise Croatia's independence in 1991, they kept the Croat leader at arm's length.

Tudjman's successors must find a way to end Croatia's estrangement from her neighbours. The father of the nation loved his people, but he rigged their elections to make sure they did not make the mistake of voting him out. When the people of his capital chose an opposition mayor, he simply forbade it. He ran the country's media. It was all done quite shamelessly, in the knowledge that his status as the hero of the 1991-95 war for independence against Belgrade put him beyond the limits set for lesser men. Happily that era is now over.

None of Tudjman's likely heirs from the centre-left opposition, or even from the ranks of his own party, looks likely even to try to run the country in the same imperial style. Many bets are on Mate Granic to be Croatia's next president. Mr Granic was trained for the priesthood and has the air of a courteous Catholic clergyman of the old school. His would be a very different Croatia, in which co-operation rather than confrontation would be the keynote.

Europe has a responsibility to help Croatia to come in from the cold. Europe's leaders must draw a line under the diplomatic squabbles over Yugoslavia's dissolution and dispel the lingering impression among Croats that they still disapprove of Croat independence. It would be absurd for a country on the crossroads between the Balkans, Central Europe and the Mediterranean to remain outside the European Union for much longer. If Brussels can say yes to Turkey, with all that country's economic and human rights problems, it ought certainly to say the same to Croatia.