Tudjman cashes in on Nazi past

Click to follow
FEW PEOPLE ever accuse Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman of excessive tact. But his latest initiative has disturbed even Croats accustomed to his expertise in shooting his own nation in the foot.

On 30 May, Croatia's currency, the dinar, will be replaced by the kuna, the name of the currency used by the Nazi-backed puppet state of Croatia that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and gypsies between 1941 and 1945.

'The kuna is offensive to everyone with bad memories of Fascism, and that means most European countries, including Germany,' said Slavko Goldstajn, Croatia's most prominent Jewish figure.

That view is shared by moderate Serbs in Croatia who did not join in the 1991 rebellion against Croatia's secession from Yugoslavia. These Serbs, and many liberal Croatian critics of Mr Tudjman, say he could hardly have chosen a more provocative way of reinforcing the stubbornness of the Belgrade-backed Serbs who launched the rebellion.

The new kuna banknotes will be printed in Germany and be exchangeable at a rate of 1,000: 1 with the Croatian dinar. The 1,000-kuna note will bear a portrait of Ante Starcevic, the 19th-century father of Croatian nationalism. The 20-kuna note will bear a picture of Vukovar, the eastern Croatian town that fell to the Serbs in November 1991 after probably the most ferocious battle in three years of warfare in former Yugoslavia.

The servile, pro-Tudjman Zagreb media argue that the kuna originated as a means of exchange in medieval Croatia and that its use by the Nazi-supported Ustashe regime in the 1940s should not rule out its adoption today. Kuna is the word for a marten, a furry creature native to Croatian forests.

'The kuna defends our national tradition and confirms our sovereignty,' Mr Tudjman said last week.

The point that seems always to elude him is that, by adopting state symbols that are exclusively Croatian, he will never ease the suspicions of his Serbian population. Before the war of 1991, Serbs accounted for 600,000 of Croatia's 4.6 million people, and large numbers were descended from communities that had lived in Croatia for several hundred years.

While many Serbs had their eyes fixed on seceding to a Greater Serbia in 1991, and might have rebelled against even a liberal Croatian state, Mr Tudjman's nationalist tunnel vision precluded the option of tolerant coexistence. During the present war, while Serbs have expelled or killed Croats, Croatian political authorities and military forces have likewise sacked Serbs from their jobs and burned their homes.

Although Mr Tudjman's every public act is reported with cringing deference by state-run television, which resembles Soviet broadcasting in the Brezhnev era, his control over Croatian public life may be cracking. A serious rebellion has broken out in his ruling Croatian Democratic Union, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way he has mishandled of the Bosnian war.

In some ways, Mr Tudjman has recently moderated Croatia's image. He has signed a peace deal with the Muslims and, with seemingly gritted teeth, apologised for Croatia's treatment of Jews in the 1940s. But he will not yield on the kuna, and that bodes ill for the future of former Yugoslavia.