Leader obsessed with history becomes part of it

A DECADE ago I met Croatia's future president in the little prefab that served as his campaign office in the capital. On the eve of the first multi-party elections since the 1945 Communist takeover, I assumed an old dissident would appreciate the chance to get to know English journalists and explain the nationalist position.

"Where do you live?" he barked. "Belgrade". He exploded. Purple-faced and spraying me with saliva, he shouted that no one living in the Serbian capital could possibly understand Croatia or its problems and he hustled me out. It was typical of his approach. Years of persecution and two prison terms had left him paranoid and intolerant. Like the Serbs, he saw plots and conspiracies everywhere.

I met him again in 1992 during the war of independence with Belgrade. This time he was mellower. He was sailing along the Adriatic coast after a successful offensive against Serbs holding a vital bridge near Zadar. He pulled me to the side of the boat. "See that?" he said, pointing at the name painted on the side. "This ship used to be called Vuk Karadzic and now it's called Bartol Kasic." He patted me on the shoulder and whispered jovially: "It's what this is all about."

For Tudjman, it was. Karadzic was a 19th-century Serb writer of a highly nationalist stamp. Kasic was a Croat Jesuit who wrote the first Croatian grammar in the 17th century. As president, Tudjman was more interested in the writing and rewriting of history than humdrum government. He took an enormous personal interest in designing flags, heraldry, the costumes of his guards, in building monuments such as the "altar of the homeland" north of Zagreb and in renaming streets after national heroes. His partner was the Catholic Church, the one institution that kept the flame of Croat national identity alive during the centuries of Austrian rule and the decades of Serb dominion that followed.

A certain kind of Croat felt totally at ease in the environment he created. Many small farmers, villagers, shopkeepers and civil servants shared his vision of a Croatia run with a heavy hand from the top. They didn't care less if Croatia was isolated from the process of European integration. They felt pleasantly cut off. They shared the big man's withering contempt for the cosmopolitan chatterboxes who moaned to foreigners about civil liberties and human rights. When Tudjman said they were a bunch of traitors, Jews, Communists, they knew exactly what he meant. But Tudjman was not the idol of the whole nation. Urban Croats have a strong left-wing tradition and he never really controlled cities such as Zagreb, Rijeka and Osijek.

In the last years of his rule he had to massage the elections by giving seats to Croats in neighbouring Bosnia to defeat the centre-left opposition. His death may have ignited a spasm of grief and sympathy across the board, but his cronies look likely to lose the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in 10 days.

His successors may have an easier time with Europe. Tudjman's table-thumping manners irked even his German and Austrian allies.

The emollient Ivica Racan, the leftist leader who may succeed him, would receive a friendlier welcome if he pushed for European Union membership.

Although post-independence Croatia is poorer than it was, it is rich by East European standards, possesses some of the best tourist resorts in Europe and has a highly motivated and educated population. The Croats should be all set to return to the Mediterranean and Central European orbit from which their cultural and religious heritage springs.

But it may not happen. Brussels does not just want fairer elections and less state control of the media as the price of EU membership.

The Europeans want the Croats to hand over more suspects to The Hague war crimes tribunal, including military leaders of the 1991-95 war for independence with Serbia. They are also demanding that Zagreb makes a bigger effort to lure Croatian Serbs back to the homes from which they fled in the last phase of the war in 1995.

Both demands are unpopular and any leader who capitulated to them would incur furious opposition. Tudjman's successors could well find it impossible to reconcile Europe's demands with Croat national feeling. Croatia may yet be left out in the cold.

Marcus Tanner's book `Croatia' is published by Yale University Press.