Democratic Breakthrough in Croatia

Democratic Breakthrough in Croatia

Democracy has been given a second chance in Croatia with a dramatic breakthrough by democratic parties in parliamentary and presidential elections earlier this year. The national-chauvinist HDZ (Croatian Democratic Community) founded by Franjo Tudjman, which has ruled Croatia with an iron fist since 1991, lost control of Parliament. A coalition of six democratic parties, dominated by the alliance of social democrats and social liberals, now holds almost two-thirds of the seats. The new prime minister, Ivica Racan, heads the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which has evolved from the old Croatian League of Communists. The SPD is, if anything, excessively moderate, anxious to get Croatia into Europe.

Even more significantly, the most intransigent anti-HDZ candidate, Stipe Mesic, won the presidency as the candidate of the same coalition. Mesic sharply broke with Tudjman and HDZ in 1994 over their aggressive policy in Bosnia. Since then he has participated in sit-ins led by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) against evictions of Serbs from Zagreb and has gone to the Hague to testify about Croatian war crimes in Bosnia.

Mesic has been unequivocal in calling for the return of Serbian refugees, for cooperation with the Hague Court, for criminal prosecution of the new tycoons who have ransacked the Croatian economy, for a subordination of the secret services (there are four) to Parliament, and for a reduction of the vast prerogatives of the office of the president, which had reduced Croatia under Tudjman to a caricature of Latin American authoritarianism. Croatia has in effect elected a more political and powerful Havel.

The massive defeat of HDZ poses a problem to all those commentators who have argued that chauvinist ethnic-nationalism is the immutable master language of politics in the Balkans. If the HDZ in Croatia, with control of most mass media, with the army, police, and secret services, with funds legal and illegal, and the support of the local mafiosi and the “diaspora” Croats in Bosnia, can be defeated in a reasonably free election, how secure are the nationalist authoritarians in Bosnia and Serbia?

Victory in Croatia went to a coalition of clearly secular parties, committed to parliamentary democracy and an open society. What happens next will have a major impact on the region as a whole.

The new foreign minister, Toni Picula, visited Sarajevo right after the election to assure the Bosnians that the new Croat government will treat Bosnia as a friendly and sovereign state. The Hercegovinian Croats who have been receiving a U.S. $300 million a year subsidy, of which only a third shows in the budget, have been told that those days are over; they must look to Sarajevo and not Zagreb. (Under Tudjman, Zagreb promoted and appointed Croatian military commanders in Bosnia and supplemented their salaries.)

The Serbian “entity’s” main town of Banja Luka has traditionally oriented itself to Zagreb an...