The knife over Bosnia: Franjo Tudjman's plan for a Greater Croatia involves silencing all critics. Jelena Lovric, a Croat, argues that his intolerant policies helped push his country into war

Jelena Lovric
Sunday 02 August 1992 23:02

The President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, looks set to be returned to power. Opinion polls in the days leading up to yesterday's Croatian elections suggested that he had twice the support of any other candidate. But - as with Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade - Mr Tudjman's electoral success will prove to be bad news for Croats.

Mr Tudjman was ready to accept the shameful agreement forged earlier this year between Bosnian Serbs and Croats, in the Austrian town of Graz. According to that agreement, Bosnia- Herzegovina - whose independence Croatia has, in theory, recognised - would be divided, like a cake, between Serbs and Croats.

Under international pressure, Mr Tudjman began to back off. But how seriously should we take his volte-face - and how long will it last? For Bosnia- Herzegovina is one of the few issues on which Mr Tudjman has always been consistent. From the start, he has shared a common aim with Milosevic, Serbia's nationalist leader: the division of Bosnia. From that basic principle, everything else has followed.

It is here that Croatian policy reveals its true face. Mr Tudjman was freely elected in 1990 - which is often quoted as proof that his government is 'democratic'. In reality, the behaviour of the Croatian president makes it clear he is no democrat. A war is not the best time to judge democratic standards. None the less, by any measure, Mr Tudjman fails the test.

First, there was the question of the large Serbian minority in Croatia - more than half a million altogether. True, Serbs in Croatia acted as pawns in the Greater Serbian game, when they took up weapons in protest against being ruled from Zagreb, back in August 1990, in the Serbian-majority town of Knin in southern Croatia. It is true that 'they started it'. And yet the policies of Franjo Tudjman and his associates pushed the Serbs in Croatia into Milosevic's arms. Even before Mr Tudjman came to power, at the biggest rally of what was then still the opposition - now the ruling party - a priest who talked of co-existence with Serbs was greeted with jeers.

Serbs and Croats came to understand each other less and less. Croats were frustrated by the aggressive policies of Mr Milosevic, who seemed set on dominating all of what was then Yugoslavia; Serbs, in turn, felt that the collective memory of their own suffering was awakened by the intolerant acts of the new government. They feared a resurrection of the past, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs died at the hands of the Ustashe, Croatia's Nazi-era puppet regime.

Mr Milosevic inflamed the conflict, and used it adeptly to serve his own ends. Mr Tudjman, in contrast, behaved like an elephant in a glasshouse. It was only because of international pressure that he recently offered a law on minorities, which guaranteed Serbian rights. The trouble is, it is too late. If, a year or two ago, Mr Tudjman had offered the Serbs in Knin what they are now guaranteed, it would have been more difficult for Mr Milosevic to turn the Serbs into a Trojan horse - fighting Mr Milosevic's war, by proxy - and thus, at the same time, to make them the biggest victims of his policies.

In spite of its new declarations, the Croatian government does not wish Serbs in Croatia to have the opportunity to articulate their national interests, even now. Plans for a Serbian assembly, proposed by a number of leading Serbs, were rejected out of hand.

Milorad Pupovac, a professor at Zagreb University, commented that the question of the Serbian minority is the litmus test of Croatian democracy: as a result, charges were pressed against him for 'verbal crimes' - insulting the state (one of the very crimes that caused the former Communist government to fall). When Serbs, including those who have shown themselves loyal to Croatia, ask for protection from collective condemnation and revenge by Croats, the government is hopelessly slow to react.

It is not just Serbs whose views Mr Tudjman, the former Communist general, does not wish to hear. This narcissistic president has brought the main newspapers, and especially state television, into a condition of insulting servility. But that, for Mr Tudjman, is not enough. He has an unusual view of democracy: different parties, yes; different voices, no. Every critical voice, whether Serb or Croat, is demonised. The opposition is 'hostile'; workers' demands represent a 'special war' against Croatia; critical journalists are 'servants of foreign powers'.

Everything possible is done to silence those who think differently. The public prosecutor began legal proceedings against several journalists, including myself. The Voice of Slavonia newspaper was taken over by a group of armed men under the orders of a loyal strongman.

My newspaper, Danas - literally, 'Today', a magazine that has sought to maintain its editorial independence - has been forced to cease publishing. The government used its financial difficulties as an excuse for closing it down, and refused all offers from businessmen who wanted to buy the paper.

When the Danas team, using private capital, tried last month to start Novi Danas ('New Danas'), the courts banned the magazine - allegedly because of the name. Meanwhile, the setting up of private television and radio stations has been forbidden by law; state television is heavily biased. The ruling party, and especially its President, are untouchable.

But it is in Bosnia that the real essence of Mr Tudjman's policy is laid bare, in all its anachronistic glory. The policy is based on the idea of territorial expansion.

From the early talks with Mr Milosevic, when the division of Bosnia was agreed in principle (only the borders were yet to be decided), to the meeting in Graz a few months ago, Mr Tudjman has always been careful to ensure that he will receive a slice of the cake. The only thing that has changed is how he gets his slice. New maps have already been drawn up. When the international community insisted that frontiers could not be changed, 'cantons' were proposed, which is just another way of saying the same thing - a slower path to the same Greater Serbian and Greater Croatian goal.

With the official creation last month of a Croatian entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina, which calls itself 'Herzeg-Bosnia', the policy is clear. Because of the leopard's skin - the ethnic patchwork that characterises Bosnia, even more than the other republics of former Yugoslavia - it is impossible to split Bosnia into ethnic cantons, as the Bosnian government, unlike Zagreb and Belgrade, has always made clear. The Milosevic- Tudjman concept thus means shifting entire populations. Those who know Mr Tudjman say that the Croatian President believes this to be a viable solution. He appears to believe that mass resettlement, followed by the creation of new borders, will finally resolve the problem of Croats and Serbs.

The mass exodus that we have seen in recent months, of more than two million refugees, could only come about under the threat of war. Is this, then, the real meaning of this inconceivably brutal war? Is the 'ethnic cleansing' of the landscape not the result of the horrors of war, but its cause? After all, Mr Milosevic and Mr Tudjman had discussed the carve-up of Bosnia, long ago.

Certainly, we know that at a recent session of the Croatian Supreme Council - the unconstitutional body that wields real power in Croatia - there was, for the first time, a sharp clash between Mr Tudjman and his Prime Minister, Franjo Greguric. Apparently the Deputy Prime Minister, Zdravko Tomac, felt obliged to tell Mr Tudjman that the project of creating a Greater Croatia will end just like Mr Milosevic's project of a Greater Serbia - in catastrophe. It is not a lesson that Mr Tudjman seems willing to learn.

The author wrote for the weekly magazine 'Danas' until its recent forced closure, and is one of a number of Croatian journalists facing court proceedings for 'insulting the state'.

(Photograph omitted)

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