Gambler stakes his all on war

WAR IN EUROPE/1 Marcus Tanner charts Franjo Tudjman's evolution from dedicated communist to opportunistic nationalist

STANDING IN an ice-cream-coloured uniform covered in gold brocade, reviewing troops in Split last week, he looked every inch like Tito, an impression he surely intended to create. As he drank champagne on Friday night and ignored the pleas from Western capitals to hold back his assault on the Serbs of the Krajina, he must have savoured the sensation of making the world hold its breath while he made up his mind.

It has been a long, slow rise to the centre of the world stage for Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's 73- year-old leader and the self-proclaimed father of the nation. He is, he never tires of saying, the man who realised "Croatia's 1,000-year-old dream of independence".

It has been a roller-coaster of a career with extraordinary peaks and troughs, from communist ideologue - Tito's youngest general - to imprisoned nationalist, and finally, the first president of independent Croatia at the age of 69, when most people's thoughts dwell on retirement.

His roots are in Zagorje, the rich wine-growing region of northern Croatia where Tito also grew up. His father was active on the left of the pre- war Peasants Party, which fought for Croatian home rule. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 it was natural for 19-year-old Franjo to join the communist-led partisans in the fight against German occupation and the fascist Ustashe puppet state they set up in Croatia. In May 1945 Tudjman was part of the victorious First Zagreb Division which marched into the Croatian capital. By now a true communist, he won a job vetting officers' ideology in the Military Academy in Belgrade.

Comrade Tudjman's faith in Yugoslavia was tested in the 1950s, when he ran up against the arrogance of the Serbian officer corps in the Academy. He was angered by the way he thought the Serbs denigrated Croatia's contribution to the war and by the stress they placed on the number of Serbs killed by Croat fascists.When he left Belgrade for Zagreb in 1963 as a major- general, to run a historical institute, his studies confirmed his conviction that Croats were being exploited in the new Yugoslavia, just as in the old. His evolution from communist to Croat nationalist was almost complete by 1967, when he signed a controversial petition insisting that Croatian was a separate language from Serbian.

Tudjman was expelled from the Party for his imprudence. But in the nationalist ferment of Croatia in the late 1960s, he had free rein to flesh out his theory on how the Serbs were deliberately exaggerating their human losses in the war on a popular newspaper, Hrvatski Tijednik.

When Tito cracked down on Croat nationalists in 1971, he sacked the party leadership and had Hrvastki Tijednik closed. Tudjman was sentenced to two years in jail. Now a confirmed dissident, he repeated his views on the Serbs' wartime casualties to foreign journalists. This won him another three years in jail.

When Yugoslav communism crumbled in the late 1980s, the elderly Tudjman returned from the political margins. As the winds of nationalism blew throughout Yugoslavia, Tudjman's views were no longer extreme. In 1990 he founded a party. In Croatia, old communists felt safe in the hands of an old partisan general. The nationalists, including wealthy exiled Ustashe sympathisers in the US and Canada, admired a man who had served time for patriotic convictions. Most Croats wanted a father figure to keep Slobodan Milosevic, the frightening new leader of Serbia, at bay. In Croatia's first free elections in 45 years, in the spring of 1990, Tudjman's supporters romped home with 42 per cent of the votes, taking two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

In office he disappointed his supporters. As Milosevic's demands grew more extreme, Tudjman busied himself with erecting statues, and designing flags and uniforms for his guards outside the Bans Palace in Zagreb. An intolerance of criticism made his talk of Croatia's "young democracy" sound hollow. Above all, his election-time rhetoric about putting the Serbs in their place returned to haunt him when militants from the Serb stronghold of Knin launched an armed insurrection in August 1990, with the backing of Milosevic and the Yugoslav army.

Most Croats wanted a leader who could combat Milosevic. Instead, Tudjman appeared meek when he met Serbia's bullish supremo at summits. He only declared independence from Yugoslavia under pressure, when the Serbs had already seized one- third of Croatia's territory. When his advisers pleaded for all-out war with the Yugoslav army in June 1991, he would not hear of it. "Are you crazy? We would have 100,000 dead in weeks," he snapped at a press conference. Instead he entered into partnership with Milosevic to carve up Bosnia.

His saving graces are a willingness to scrap policies that don't work and a conviction that Croatia must join the West. When the Croat-Muslim war in central Bosnia went badly in 1993, and he was threatened with sanctions, he made a U-turn and allied with the Muslims. At home he has kept a tight rein on extremists and held together an unlikely coalition of old partisan communists, Catholics, the descendants of the Ustashe and free-market liberals.

He is already assured of a place in history as the man who broke the 11th century curse of King Zvonimir, who, as he lay dying in Knin, allegedly condemned his fellow countrymen to 1,000 years of foreign rule.

Now he wants more and is rolling the dice, gambling on a military bid to end the Serbian insurrection that has impoverished Croatia.

If it succeeds, expect more splendid uniforms, gold brocade and military parades. If it fails, the attempt to pass himself off as a successor to Tito will look absurd, and the career of Croatia's great gambler may be over.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas