He's 'our' tyrant in Croatia Dictator? Croatia's Franjo Tudjman has grown more arbitrary and eccentric since his election in 1991. But he's too valuable to the United States and the Bosnian peace plan to shrug off.

June 25, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZAGREB, Croatia -- He wears grand imperial uniforms that signify nothing but vanity. Prime ministers who displease him are fired. So are opponents who win elections.

His friends get fat deals from the government, while enemies get their phones tapped. Journalists who insult him are charged as criminals. When he needs an ego boost, there's always state television, faithfully comparing him to Winston Churchill.

So goes the world according to Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia. One might shrug him off as yet another eccentricity of Balkan politics were he not filling two important roles: major U.S. friend in the region, and pedestal for peace in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For those reasons, Western diplomats have watched Tudjman's personal and political evolution with dismay and occasional alarm since his election in 1991. But their concerns are minor compared to the fears of some Croatians, who say their 74-year-old president seems determined to become dictator even as his popularity fades.

"I call it a soft dictatorship wrapped in legality," says Ivo Skrabalo, garrulous vice president of the Social Liberals, one of three main opposition parties. "It is not like in Latin America, where people disappear. But it is the way that every dictatorship starts."

"It's partly the story of a stubborn old man who has surrounded himself with sycophants," says Vesna Pusic, a sociology professor. Over the past several years, so many aides and advisers once considered peers have either quit or been fired that now, she says, "There is no one around him who can speak on equal terms, who has the stature to say, 'Why are you doing these crazy things?' "

Nor, for the moment, are U.S. officials willing to question Tudjman's behavior seriously, as long as he doesn't upset the balance of power in Bosnia. His influence is necessary not only as a counterbalance to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, but also to help prop up Bosnia's shaky Muslim-Croatian federation, the collapse of which would wreck the Dayton peace agreement.

Tudjman rose to power as Yugoslavia was breaking apart in 1990, manipulating some of the same themes of ethnic nationalism that thrust Milosevic to prominence among the Serbs.

When Croatia declared its independence in 1991, Tudjman's policies helped provoke the country's Serbian minority into armed revolt.

Two years later, he backed the Bosnian Croats in their bloody split from the Muslims. He eventually helped rebuild the alliance in the agreement that produced the federation, although he's never been enthusiastic about it.

With each year in office, he has tightened his grip on the media, the military and the police, while gradually taking on the trappings of a tinhorn despot, best symbolized by his wardrobe of custom-designed uniforms with gold braid and steep-sloping hats.

The privatization of the economy has been rife with sweetheart deals for friends, relatives and political allies, critics say. Tudjman's daughter now runs a major importer of such items as Sony televisions and Scotch whisky -- "her small shop," Tudjman calls it.

Such doings have prompted some to compare Tudjman to Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the Communist dictator who held Yugoslavia's nationalist factions together for 35 years until his death in 1980. That might seem odd, considering that Tudjman was jailed for opposing the Tito regime, and blames the Communists for the death of his parents. But contradictory behavior is nothing new for Tudjman, according to Slaven Letica, a former adviser.

"He holds a Ph.D. and is seen as an anti-intellectual," Letica says. "He is an active anti-fascist with a pro-fascist reputation. And he is a victim of the Communist regime whose image in economics is that of an old Bolshevik."

The one constant in his track record, says Nenad Zakosek, a political scientist at Zagreb University, is that "he is convinced he is on a historic mission," a zeal that allows little tolerance for the customary obstacles and delays of the democratic process.

"He is convinced that the opposition is some kind of group of dilettantes who really don't know what is important," Zakosek adds, "or, at the extreme, that they are traitors."

During the war, most of the population seemed willing to overlook his undemocratic tendencies. And when a lightning offensive drove Croatian Serb rebels off their holdings in August, his popularity peaked.

But even in the afterglow of victory, people began to pay more attention to the faltering economy. One of the most vibrant economies in Eastern Europe during Communist days, Croatia had fallen victim to huge unemployment, a high cost of living, and devalued wages and pensions. And as independent newspapers spread the word of the choice deals being awarded to Tudjman's friends, a backlash began.

In last year's parliamentary elections, his Croatian Democratic Union led all parties but won less than 50 percent of the vote.

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