In a way, it can be said the year 2000 began 10 December 1999 for Croatia, when the Father of the Nation died. Franjo Tuđman finally left his countrymen and women to face the future without him, to bury with him the recent past.
Yet, it was to the past that voters looked when they went to the polls to elect the new Parliament on 3 January and a new president on 7 February. Ivica Račan, once the leader of Croatia's Communists, became the new prime minister. Stipe Mesić, the last president of the former Yugoslavia, was elected president. Famous for his jokes, Mesić really has had the last laugh on both Milošević and Tuđman.
Or, perhaps not yet, where Milošević is concerned; it is yet to be seen whether the Yugoslav Army will turn on Slobo in 2001, the way it did on Mesić ten years earlier.
The outcome of the two elections created the kinds of opportunities for Croatia that all of the country's European allies have been hoping for. By the end, despite his prominent place in the history of the independence struggle, Franjo Tuđman left behind an isolated economy and a frustrated population.
The Tuđman-led oligarchy had become discredited in much the same way as the old League of Communists of Yugoslavia in the old times. Few trusted the institutions of state to be impartial—the state bank and the police had earned widespread disapproval.
That's why 75 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, and why more than two-thirds of them rejected the former ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The Social Democrats (SDP) and Social Liberals (HSLS) formed an alliance with almost twice the number of seats held by the former government party.
The tasks ahead
Rescuing the economy remains the largest task before the new national leadership. In 1999, the country's output shrank by two percent at a time when many economies in the region were growing and winning foreign investment. Unemployment had refused to budge below 20 percent, and privatisation had become a national disgrace, with state assets being passed around like family possessions.
The danger for the new president is that by offering rapid improvement in living standards, unlikely even if the rest of Europe throws money at him, he will be unable to avoid the same accusations of broken promises that have brought down other reform governments elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Privatisation remains slow even for the best companies and impossible for some of the biggest companies. "Will Croatians bear the pain if they can't see the gain?" is a question the next year may answer.
Where President Mesić and the new governement have made a big difference already is in Croatia's image abroad and in its relations with its neighbours. While the Bosnian part of the Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) Federation may think more could be done to undermine the hardline nationalists in Herzegovina, who went ahead with their unofficial and, according to Western opinion, illegal referendum on creating a third entity there, most of the signals coming from Zagreb are positive.
In September, the president sacked seven army generals after they complained publicly that the glorious memory of those who fought for independence was besmirched by investigations into alleged war crimes during the Operations "Flash" and "Storm" in 1995. Then the rebellious Serb population was driven out by the Croatian Army, which was trained and equipped by Americans.
The generals accused Mesić in an open letter of "waging a campaign to smear the independence struggle through recent spectacular arrests." The unmarked graves of an estimated 120 Serbs were being investigated near Gospić, the scene of what were said to be revenge attacks on mostly older Serbs left behind, as the Krajina rebels escaped with their families in refugee convoys.
Four Croats have been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the killings, along with others arrested for crimes in Bosnia. Protests by war veterans outraged by the arrests became violent at times—a bomb killed one key witness who had given evidence at The Hague, and a radio reporter covering one of the investigations had a pistol forced into his mouth.
The fate of those Krajina refugees remains a contentious issue that the new authorities will be obliged to deal with soon, if the new democratic image is to last. The UNHCR estimates that 24,000 people remain estranged from their homes in Croatia, the vast majority of them Serbs from Knin and the surrounding district. It was there that the first warnings of the Yugoslav war began with barricades and hunting rifles in the summer of 1990.
Belgrade's tools or not, the Krajina Serbs have been a part of Croatia's cultural landscape for centuries, and if the West is serious about undoing the bitterness of ethnic cleansing, and if Croatia is to take its place as a pluralist nation in a united Europe, at least some of those refugees must be encouraged to return. Their heritage must also be restored to its historic place in Croatia's cultural patchwork.
There is much anger to be overcome, probably too much for forgiveness to be part of the reconciliation. Many Serbs will have to face the truth, and some should face tribunals before the Serbian political voice becomes a part of everyday life once again. Now the new president is putting Croats on trial, and that's the kind of example Western Europe has been hoping for.
The European stage considered
While Mesić is facing down many critics at home in taking that step, he seems to be determined to see the process through and not lose the political advantages he is winning on the European stage. Now he must hope for the West to respond quickly with the massive financial help he needs to keep his own people on side.
How he will get on with his nearest neighbours is one of the more fascinating questions engaging Balkan watchers. Vojislav Koštunica, the new Yugoslav president, went to Zagreb for the Balkan Summit in November and set about rebuilding the civilised links his predecessor had destroyed. But Koštunica has an electorate at home that is not yet in any mood to apologise and would not allow him to do so, even if he had it in mind.
The new Yugoslav president seems dedicated to promoting Serb strength rather than humility, and has recently claimed that his country will be invited to join the EU before Croatia and Bosnia. This may merely be for domestic consumption, and the corridor conversations between the leaders of those former Yugoslav friends and acquaintances must have been far more diplomatic.
But such bold talk reinforces the difficulties ahead in establishing comfortable co-operation between the recent enemies. Such co-operation will be vital, in the most obvious ways, such as transport links and customs harmonisation, if any of the region's war-damaged countries are to escape the legacy of the 1990s.
And some hope
One of Croatia's economic hopes remains its tourist industry, which has some of the most lovely natural advantages in Europe—anyone who has walked Dubrovnik's marbled streets in summer or eaten mushroom suppers in Istrian hill villages in autumn will tell you all about that.
Slobbo's timing was lousy, as usual: months of posturing over Montenegro's independence
It took longer than expected for the Tuđman legacy to diminish in one of Croatia's most important cultural arenas, the soccer field. Miroslav Blažević, the national team coach and a symbol of the HDZ's power, waited until October to offer his resignation. He seems not to have realised that, although he might think sport is more important than politics, the government no longer agreed with him.
He had asked the national squad players to sign a petition criticising the Western orientation of the new regime, and his marching orders soon followed. He might have survived if the team was a bit more successful, but the glory days of the 1998 World Cup seem to have vanished. Then they came third. In the qualifiers this time, they won only six games out of 23 under his management.
And the year's most famous Croatian? None of the above. That honour must go to Goran Višnjić, who starred in the international blockbuster TV hospital series ER. He first came to the attention of Hollywood producers in Welcome to Sarajevo and is now cast as the new George Clooney, the male love interest smouldering over the top of his surgical mask. He's proud to put Croatia on the map, he says, but he doesn't talk about the war. Maybe because no one in Los Angeles would understand the politics.
Dan Damon, 11 December 2000
- Archived articles on Croatia
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page