Leading Article: Curbing Croatia

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President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia has long shown a penchant for donning the kind of glittering uniforms that were once favoured by Yugoslavia's late dictator, Josip Broz Tito. Now he seems to want to govern with the aid of Tito's dictatorial style as well. He is refusing to allow the citizens of the Croatian capital to elect the mayor of their choice and is bullying the country's few remaining independent newspapers. On Wednesday, when the foreign ministers of the Council of Europe are due to decide on whether Croatia should be admitted into the institution, many will feel a strong temptation to wipe the smirk off the Balkan generalissimo's face by saying no.

They should resist that temptation.

Since his victory over the Serb rebels of the Krajina region last summer, Tudjman has disappointed the West's slender hopes that he would govern in a democratic fashion. The state-run television continually accuses political opponents of working for foreign governments while the president has reneged on the promises to let Serb civilians who were not involved in the Krajina rebellion return to their homes. He has appalled many in his own country with his flirtation with the memory of Croatia's bloodthirsty wartime fascist regime.

Why should a country run by such a man be admitted to a European institution, the main point of which is to safeguard human rights?

The unpalatable fact is that isolating Croatia from Western institutions will not serve the interests of those who are suffering most from Tudjman's authoritarianism. It is more likely to bolster the hardliners who insist the ruling party must remain in power for decades to save Croatia from foreign spies and domestic traitors. If Croatia is excluded from the Council, these hardliners will be quick to wheel out the charge that Croatia is a victim of the West, given that several countries with human rights records as shaky as Croatia's, such as Russia, Slovakia and Romania, have already been admitted to the Council.

Freedom is not dead in Croatia but under threat. Indeed, it is the very vigour of the opposition press in exposing the corruption of President Tudjman's entourage that has roused him to such desperate methods. The cause of democracy in Croatia will be best served if the country is admitted to the Council of Europe, but that the maximum pressure is applied to make sure that Croatia then abides by the conditions it has signed up to concerning free speech and human rights.