Central Europe Review Balkan Information Exchange
Vol 2, No 35
16 October 2000
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Hitting the Fan
Will Belgrade's new regime land Croatia in the brown stuff?
Pat FitzPatrick

One could almost hear a collective, drawn-out "Oh, shit!" on the lips of Prime Minister Ivica Račan's senior advisors in Zagreb on Monday afternoon as they realized that, yes, the European Union (EU) was indeed making good on its promise to ease sanctions on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

Between the call of Yugoslavia's presidential elections and the 5 October "Uprising in Belgrade," Croatian politicians and the press alike seemed relatively uninterested in the prospect of a post-Milošević FRY. True, the prospect of Slobo's ouster was front-page news, as was the Belgrade revolt that led to Vojislav Koštunica's inauguration. But throughout, both columnists and politicians remained relatively aloof and—with unsucessful anti-regime demonstrations in 1991, the winter of 1996 to 1997 and summer of 1999 in mind—seemed to issue a collective yawn as they dismissed the Democratic Opposition of Serbia's (DOS) chances of bringing change.

Both were forced to strike a different note when, after Koštunica's inauguration, the EU confirmed its Monday meeting would ease sanctions on Belgrade.

Yugoslavia's sudden changing place in foreign affairs is, to borrow from Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, prompting an "agonizing reappraisal" of Croatia's policy toward FRY. It is also raising serious questions about how to sell the inevitable (and unpalatable) shift to the electorate.

Domestic politics have been more than a little tense of late, with a growing feud between Račan's government and President Stipe Mesić over constitutional change; a messy public debate over the "meaning" and "devaluation" of the 1991 to 1995 "Homeland War"; and a right-wing campaign to destabilize the Račan administration.

Serious questions are now being raised about Croatia's stability ten months into its transition to democracy. It is little wonder, then, that "Madeleine Albright called me to ask what the bloody hell is going on in Croatia," as the front page headline quoting PM Račan in Friday's Jutarnji list put it.

Politics pre-Koštunica

The nation's politics had, of their own accord, become more than a little messy prior to Koštunica's election and the subsequent uprising that saw him installed in office. The Croatian summer was long and hot, both figuratively and metaphorically, and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and veterans' groups sharing its politics seized on cooperation with the Hague Tribunal (ICTY) as their public rallying point.

Their braying that cooperation with The Hague was betraying the "Homeland War" was given new urgency when the Račan administration, a little more than a month ago, approved a sudden, nation-wide arrest operation targeting Croats accused of war crimes. While polls indicated that a great majority thought the operation to have been an astute and proper move by the government, the surveys did not reveal the fact that the arrests had crystallized far-right opposition to both Račan and President Mesić. (Although the two men cordially detest each other, they share broad agreement on issues such as the necessity of cooperation with the ICTY.)

Radical veterans in Split formed a self-styled "Headquarters for the Defense of the Dignity of the Homeland War" (SODDR), which now has branches across the nation. Not to be outdone, the HDZ announced it would call for motions of no confidence in Račan and the popular Interior Minister Šime Lučin, whose police forces had spearheaded the operation. The HDZ made various claims that the two had pre-judged the arrested suspects' guilt and were "besmirching" the dignity of the war.

Backyard bombing

Then there was Milan Levar, a courageous Gospić resident who had testified before the ICTY on Croatian war crimes against Serbs in his hometown. Levar demanded that the Račan administration investigate his claims that war criminals continued to walk Gospić's streets—and was promptly assassinated by a bomb blast in his own backyard.

Meanwhile, the Croatian Catholic Church—which has a rather long track record of supporting rightist causes, going back to the Second World War Ustaša regime—waded into the fray, appearing to side with the growing right-wing call for the government's ouster.

Barely two weeks ago, 12 generals of the Croatian Army (HV)—seven serving and five retired—issued their now-infamous "Generals' Letter," warning the Račan government and President Mesić to stop their systematic devaluation of the Homeland War. At the same time, the letter voiced objections to Mesić's plan to restructure and reform the HV.

Sensing a coup d'état, Mesić acted swiftly, sending the letters' seven serving authors into retirement with the warning that they could write all the missives they want—but not while in uniform.

As rumors circulated that another 20 senior HV officers were considering signing their names to the letter, SODDR protested at the opening of the Sabor, while the HDZ issued a proclamation of its own, supporting the generals and calling on Croats at home and in the diaspora to rise up and overthrow the "anti-Croatian Communist government" of PM Račan. True, they advocated the overthrow come at the ballot box in early elections, but the distinct impression left was that they would not shed a tear if more "forceful" methods were used.

Although polls showed support for Mesić's move and revealed the HDZ would not return to the Sabor if snap elections were called (failing to break the five-percent threshold), many analysts warned the nation was growing more receptive to radical ideas with each passing day of the right's offensive.

Enter Koštunica

The flap over the Generals' Letter was just dying down as the "Uprising in Belgrade" hit the front page. Although it first adopted a very strict "wait and see" approach, the first sign that the Račan government had accepted Koštunica as having at least some staying power came on the eve of the EU's Monday meeting, when Foreign Minister Tonino Picula said Koštunica must clearly outline his foreign and domestic policies to emphasize a break with those of his predecessor.

Picula also stressed that Milošević must be extradited to face ICTY and registered strong opposition to the EU's plan to ease sanctions. The Foreign Minister also said he could not rule out Koštunica's participation in November's EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb—the current Crown Jewel of Croatian diplomacy—but emphasized that the FRY has not fulfilled any of the conditions for the opening of negotiations on Stabilization and Association Agreements.

Bildt, Zhofia and an office plant

Seeking to make a little political hay from FRY's changing position, Tuđman-era foreign minister and present Democratic Center (DC) President Mate Granić waded into the debate, demanding that Račan and Mesić divulge all they knew about a plan UN Balkan troubleshooter Carl Bildt had forwarded to the UN Security Council.

Bildt's plan called for the establishment of a loose, six-nation-one-province Balkan political union (commonly referred to in local media as "Yugoslavia Minus Slovenia Plus Albania") that would see Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania form a customs union and a supranational council and then together apply for EU membership.

Višnja Starešina, Večernji list's astute foreign affairs columnist, promptly chided Granić for trying to use a still-born flight of fancy (she described Bildt's "Balkan stabilization team" as "Bildt personally, his secretary Zhofia and an office plant in one of the vacant offices of the politically moribund Palace of the Nations in Geneva") for political advantage, suggesting that as foreign minister he had been privy to dozens of such proposals for regional stability and integration.

The damage is done—and compounded

Paranoia over Bildt's proposal (which, incidentally, is favoured by many Serbs and Kosovars alike) was elevated to new levels on Tuesday. That evening, HRTV's news program Dnevnik gave prominent placement to a report on a Financial Times story suggesting that the EU favoured something along the lines of Bildt's proposal.

That same night—the day after the EU dropped its oil blockade on FRY—the nation learned of a mission to Belgrade by Deputy Foreign Minister Joško Paro at the behest of Račan. Speaking with Koštunica after Račan told the Financial Times that normalization would take "a long time," Paro came home with only modestly good news as the new FRY President hinted he may drop his nation's claim to be the sole legal successor to the former Yugoslavia.

Cry "foul!" and let slip the dogs of politics

Columnists across the political spectrum decried the EU's uneven treatment of Croatia, noting that Serbia has been unilaterally included in a number of integrative processes—and accorded millions in aid—while Croatia was subject to strict monitoring of its compliance with a laundry list of conditions prior to inclusion and, even now, has yet to receive tangible aid despite the EU's fulsome praise.

Jutarnji list's Nino Đula provided one of the more comprehensive arguments. Saying the EU had not imposed a singly condition as it moved to drop the oil embargo and provide aid to Serbia, Đula underscored that Račan's ruling coalition, the Group of Six, would have to tread a thin line between embracing change in FRY (for the sake of Croatia's foreign policy) while criticizing the EU for its double standards (for the sake of the domestic audience).

The newly installed Koštunica, he noted, was offered meetings with the presidents and prime ministers of EU member states just one week after his inauguration. By contrast, Prime Minister Ivica Račan had to cool his heels for more than a month after his election before being accorded the same courtesy.

Moreover, the EU has moved to include FRY in its agreement on asymmetric trade liberalization for Western Balkan nations without imposing a single condition and has invited Yugoslavia to form a joint working group to prepare for further European integration.

Then, Đula wrote, there is CARDS (the EU aid program formerly known as PHARE) and the Stability Pact. After being kicked out of PHARE over 1995's
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Operation Storm, Croatia was required to implement democratic and economic reforms, illustrate a commitment to upholding minority rights and basic human rights, make progress on relations with its former Yugoslav neighbors and demonstrate cooperation with the ICTY before the EU would consider re-admission.

The FRY, Đula said, has met none of these conditions, yet was invited to join both CARDS and the Stability Pact—not even Koštunica's more than ambiguous comments on cooperation with the ICTY were sufficient to raise international eyebrows.

The nation's public, as Đula suggested, was more than a little unhappy with the privileges accorded Yugoslavia. Although Paro's mission to Belgrade was astute, public relations considerations factored strongly in surprising criticism from the Group of Six's Liberal Party (LS) and Peasant's Party (HSS), as they demanded Račan explain his rationale for dispatching Paro in light of the EU's "betrayal."

A softening of tone?

By the week's end, the government gave signs of moving beyond its "wait and see" approach and many columnists were pointing to the large, unserved Yugoslav market, suggesting that the state-owned INA oil giant and the JANAF oil pipeline could both benefit substantially from change in Belgrade. Other Croatian products, they claimed, enjoy strong brand identity in FRY and could thus be marketed with relative ease.

Although hardly embracing Koštunica, there was a distinct shift in the government's tone after Foreign Minister Tonino Picula and Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granić—the latter being one of Račan's most trusted troubleshooters—met with two senior Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) leaders on an unofficial visit to Zagreb.

Speaking with reporters after the Wednesday evening meeting, Granić opened the door to further high-level contacts once Koštunica solidifies his grip on power, and the DOS's Žarko Korać emphasized the importance the new Belgrade authorities place on improved relations with Croatia. Granić commented that:

After the government and other institutions in Serbia have been constituted, we will start solving problems. We will begin with the easiest issues, like the issue of succession and Prevlaka [the disputed border area between Croatia and Montenegro], as well as road and power supply issues, which are prerequisites for trade and economic cooperation. We will also address the issue of [a Koštunica] government's position on the war in Croatia and BiH [Bosnia].

Korać stressed that Koštunica and the DOS are still consolidating their authority, but noted he and his colleague had come to Croatia to express the DOS's desire to establish new relations with former Yugoslav and other Southeast European nations:

We have also started here because we believe we will have to show all the others that we will not be able get far without the normalization of relations and the settlement of all issues [with Croatia].

The blow-up at Pantovčak

Still, the government is a long way from being able to openly discuss how JANAF and INA might deliver oil and gas to Serbia, let alone how the FRY and Croatia might cooperate in regional affairs. For that to happen, the PM and President Mesić must first convince the electorate (and the international community) that Croatia truly is, as they claim, the economic and political leader of Southeastern Europe—with nothing to fear from Serbia's new position.

Before that can happen, Mesić and Račan must move quickly to resolve their personal differences over the Group of Six's proposed constitutional amendments. Long discussions between the President's Office and the government appear to have done little to forge consensus, as Mesić came out swinging at the government's move to unilaterally limit virtually all of his office's powers. Mesić has never been one to support Tuđman's view of the imperial presidency, but he has been equally insistent the presidency "is not an office plant."

Mesić, the press trumpeted at week's end, feels "betrayed by the government" and summoned Račan to the Presidential Palace on Pantovčak for a heated discussion on Tuesday. The debate over constitutional changes has now spilled into foreign affairs and economic policy. Until the amendments pass the Sabor, Mesić still retains all the powers of the presidency as conceived by Tuđman, and is threatening to use them to guide the government toward a coherent economic policy more reminiscent of the Hungarian model than the eclectic and directionless mess that is the government's "vision."

Both men are mature, gifted and thoughtful politicians who are certain to find a way of setting aside their differences and working toward the common good. In their brief term in office, they have already demonstrated competency in resolving similar issues and, when appropriate, setting aside their personal dislike of one another long enough to be supportive when the circumstances warrant.

Račan, for example, was absolutely steadfast in supporting Mesić's dismissal of the generals—despite calls for a hard line from his coalition partner (and archrival) Dražen Budiša, the Social Liberal Party (HSLS) president.

The problem is thus that Mesić and Račan allowed their differences to become public at a time when an already radicalized electorate is being called upon to set aside memories of war and war crimes to welcome changing relations with Serbia.

It's no wonder Madeleine Albright wants to know what the hell is going on.

Pat FitzPatrick, 14 October 2000

In addition to his position as Adriatic Editor for Central Europe Review, Pat FitzPatrick is also Senior Editor for Terna Information Services (publisher of MediaScan Daily and Croatia: The Week in Review). This article reflects only the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Terna Information Services.

Moving on:


Pat FitzPatrick
Reappraising Relations

Tom Gallagher
Return of the Poet

Magali Perrault
Nuking the Neighbours

Sam Vaknin
Parasitic Economics

Martin D Brown
Duplicity Revisited

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Roads to Roma

Wojtek Kość
Here He
Comes Again

Mel Huang
Lithuanians Vote

Andrea Mrozek
Visiting Auschwitz

Peter Hames
The Best Czech
Film Ever

Oliver Craske
The Uninvited

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
Andrea Mrozek
Re-emerging Debates

Oliver Craske
Redrafting History

The Arts:
Židas Daskalovski
Strange Folk


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