Death of a leader brings Croatia in from the cold

CROATIA WAS in mourning yesterday after the death of its authoritarian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, but opposition figures and western diplomats said his passing could herald the dawn of a new democratic era.

President Tudjman, who had been in hospital since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery on 1 November, died late on Friday, the Prime Minister, Zlatko Matesa, said. The government did not give the cause of his death, but Tudjman had been rumoured to be suffering from stomach cancer since 1996. He was 77.

Thousands stood silently outside the hospital as a hearse, carrying the body of the man regarded by Croats as founder of their state, set off through the capital to the presidential palace. Here he will lie in state until the funeral tomorrow.

The speaker of parliament, Vlatko Pavletic, who became interim president on 26 November, appeared briefly on television before dawn yesterday to announce that "the big heart of President Franjo Tudjman ceased to beat". Flags were lowered to half-mast, and all sporting and entertainment events were cancelled for a three-day mourning period. New presidential elections will be held within 60 days, with parliamentary elections already scheduled for 3 January.

At a European Union summit in Helsinki, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said Tudjman's death should open the way for change not only in Croatia but throughout the region. "A major figure of Croatia and the Balkans has disappeared," he said. "We have to hope that the elections that will now take place - the new political situation - will help Croatia in the direction of a democratic country."

Tudjman retained his virtual one-man rule to the end despite a reputation for corruption, cronyism and inefficiency that plagued his party, the Croatian Democratic Union. Under his rule Croatia slid into increasing international isolation over its poor human rights record, continued state control of the broadcast media, refusal to co-operate with the International War Crimes Tribunal, and treatment of its remaining Serb minority. Western diplomats tired of what one described as "Croatia's repeated slaps in the face of the international community" over issues such as war crimes trials and the refusal to extradite Croatian suspects to The Hague.

But all that could now change. Comparisons are being drawn with Slovakia, which was rapidly welcomed into the international community after the fall of Vladimir Meciar, a leader from the same mould as Tudjman. Perhaps the most telling legacy of the Tudjman years is the contrast with its near neighbour, now one of the most advanced nations in post-Communist central Europe and poised for early entry into the EU.

Like Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Tudjman fused nationalism with authoritarianism, and sponsored client armies in Bosnia to carve off territory for themselves. But while many predict violent upheaval when the Milosevic regime finally collapses, most Croatians are confident the transition into the post-Tudjman era will be peaceful. The defence minister has ruled out any army involvement - 1999 is a long way from the 1991 war of independence and most Croatians are keen to join Europe in the new millennium.

Like President Tito, President Tudjman created a cult of personality around himself and his political retainers, even donning the same style of white jacket on ceremonial occasions. His authoritarian stamp helped shape Croatian democracy into the Balkan hybrid where loyalty to the ruling party is portrayed as synonymous with the very idea of an independent Croatia

His achievement was to steer Croatia to independence during the break- up of Yugoslavia, but the new state was born out of a bloody and prolonged labour. Its centralised system that gave huge power to the president meant his involvement in everything from overseeing state television to changing the name of the capital's football team from Tito-era Dynamo Zagreb to Croatia Zagreb. Officials repeatedly stressed democratic credentials, but nowhere else in the region, apart from Serbia, were the interests of party, state and president fused so effectively together.

Although a wartime officer in Marshal Tito's communist Partisan army and a general in the Yugoslav army, Tudjman had no sympathy for any lingering ideas of Yugoslav multinationalism in his nascent state.After a massive military sweep through the remaining areas of Serb-occupied Croatia in the summer of 1995, and the resulting expulsion and fleeing en masse of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, his government achieved the rare distinction of a near-ethnically homogeneous Balkan nation.

But Tudjman also considered himself a thinker and writer. Like his fellow communist-era potentates, he was a prolific author whose collection of turgid expositions included War Against War, Making Socialist Yugoslavia and Big Ideas and Small Nations. His most notorious work was The Wastelands of History, whose apparent Holocaust revisionism did little to dampen fears that a reborn Croatia would draw on the heritage of the wartime Nazi-puppet state, the Ustase regime. Israel refused to establish full diplomatic relations with Croatia until he apologised for its sentiments, which he did.

Under President Tudjman Croatia was a prisoner of its creator's vision. The small nation is there, floating in political limbo. Now, perhaps, is the time for the Big Idea.