Croatia votes but change is unlikely

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The Independent Online
ZAGREB - Croatia held its first elections since independence yesterday, after a campaign that failed to address several crucial issues and produced confusion over how many people could vote, writes Tony Barber. Opinion polls suggested that President Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia to independence after taking over from the Communists in April 1990, was likely to be re-elected president; and his centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) appeared likely to re-emerge as the largest party in the 120-seat parliament.

Much interest centred on the performance of the extremist Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), whose leader, Dobroslav Paraga, attracted large crowds with campaign speeches calling for an invasion of Serbia. The HSP borrows heavily from the legacy of the Nazi-backed Croatian state of the 1940s, which killed several hundred thousand Serbs.

The election was complicated by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Croats during last year's war against Serbia, and by the government's decision to offer the vote to those of Croatian descent abroad. More than 1 million people in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australasia had the right to take part, so that about one in three votes could, in theory, have been cast by people who have never lived in Croatia.

The opposition parties, mostly on the right, accused the HDZ of corruption and manipulation of media coverage, but failed generally to dent Mr Tudjman's patriotic image. All focused on the need to recover the one-quarter of Croatian territory lost to Serbian insurgents last year, and all accused the United Nations of siding with the Serbs by turning the occupied areas into a UN- protected zone.

Little was said about three main problems Croatia faces: its ravaged economy, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and relations with its Serbian minority. A year of war has had disastrous enonomic consequences: hyper-inflation, unemployment and more than 600,000 refugees requiring food and shelter. The government estimated before the election that the war had cost Croatia about pounds 10bn.

Although the war in Croatia has wound down since January, Croatian forces have been fighting in Bosnia- Herzegovina. Local Croats have set up an autonomous region in western Herzegovina, known as Herzeg-Bosna, and troops from Croatia were fighting with them until early July, when they were pulled out, apparently after strong but unpublicised UN pressure. Independent analysts believe that Mr Tudjman supports Mate Boban, leader of Herzeg- Bosna, in arranging the carve-up of Bosnia between Croats and Serbs. 'The HDZ will go along with Boban in the de facto division of Bosnia,' said Zarko Puhovski, professor of politics at Zagreb University. 'Croatian involvement in the Bosnian war will be even greater.'

The carve-up of Bosnia flies in the face of Western demands that the republic's integrity be maintained, but no Croatian opposition party seriously challenged the HDZ policy. Equally little discussion was held on the Serbian minority problem. Of the 600,000 Serbs who made up 12 per cent of Croatia's pre-war population, 400,000 are in Serbian-held areas, or are refugees, and took virtually no part in yesterday's election. The other 200,000 live in government-controlled parts of Croatia but they cannot have enjoyed a campaign drenched in anti-Serbian vitriol.