Tudjman defends his Serbia Ostpolitik: Croatian President remains defiant despite domestic criticism of dialogue with Slobodan Milosevic and the threat of Western embargo

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'I READ deep symbolism in to this,' shouted Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, as he leant over the side of the deck and pointed excitedly at the name of the ship. 'This boat was once named after Vuk Karadzic, a Serb writer who denied that Croats ever existed. Now it is named after Bartol Kasic, a Croatian writer who was born hundreds of years before Vuk Karadzic was ever heard of.'

Two years after leading Croatia out of Yugoslavia, via a bloody war with Serbia, Mr Tudjman still finds time to chuckle over the side-effects of independence. What he called 'the worst period in my life, at the end of 1991, when Vukovar fell', seemed a distant memory as champagne corks popped and government ministers clasped arms to croon the song Zivela Hrvatska (Long Live Croatia) in the VIP dining-room, celebrating the reopening of the Maslenica bridge.

Perhaps no former Communist leader in eastern Europe has stamped his personality on his country as much as this sprightly 72-year-old has done on Croatia, or zig-zagged so dramatically from bathos to euphoria.

Now threatened with international sanctions for meddling in the war in Bosnia, and denounced by local nationalists for making a deal with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, to reopen the strategic bridge, he remains combative - defending his new Ostpolitik towards Serbia and ridiculing what he called 'political dilettantes who always want to act from the heart'.

Western governments hold Croatia responsible for arming Bosnian Croats who have carved out a Croatian client-state in south-western Bosnia.

Mr Tudjman has done little to check this process, nor to dispel the impression that he is as contemptuous as Mr Milosevic of Bosnia's Muslims. Mr Tudjman admits that his ultimate goal, 'to normalise relations with Serbia on the basis of mutual recognition', remains far off. 'Mr Milosevic says he has no territorial pretensions towards Croatia, but also says he has no intention of formally recognising Croatia,' he said.

'But after the horrors brought to Croatia by the Yugoslav army I remain convinced that the only solution for the Balkans is to 'Scandinavianise' relations between the peoples. I have said this for 20 years and even in Serbia people are becoming aware of this fact.'

Mr Tudjman went on to paint a surprisingly mild portrait of Mr Milosevic - a man whom many Croats, Slovenes and liberal Serbs call 'the Balkan butcher'. He insisted that Serbia's leader was to some extent a man of his word. 'This aggression in former Yugoslavia is not, as some people believe, the work of a single man, even of a man like Milosevic. It is more the result of the disintegration of the Communist system, and of the system of multinational states. Look how even democratic Czechoslovakia broke up.' He added that it was 'just not true' that agreements with Serbia were not worth making because Serbia's leadership rarely honoured them. 'They do honour their agreements. Through political negotiations we succeeded in getting the Yugoslav army to withdraw from Dubrovnik and they kept their word. They also kept their word about withdrawing the Yugoslav army from Croatia as a whole,' he said.

Asked how he felt when talking to Mr Milosevic, given the Serbian President's leading role in organising the siege of Vukovar in eastern Croatia, the Croatian leader would not be drawn. 'You just have to forget your personal feelings. After all, the international community led, by the United States, has done nothing to curb Serbian aggression in Croatia or Bosnia. You always have to talk to your main adversary; even the big powers have to do that.'

Mr Tudjman's avuncular features drooped only when he recalled what he called the worst period of his life. 'The Yugoslav air force was bombing everywhere and the Serbs launched a big offensive. They even bombed the Banski Dvor (Viceroy's Court) - my own residence. The world showed no sign of helping Croatia and there was a danger of losing hope altogether.' Then he wrenched his face back into the familiar bulldog pose. 'Of course, knowing the determination of the Croatian nation, we were able to hold our ground and pull through. Now we have the most stable democracy in the whole ex-Communist world.'

(Photograph omitted)