Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia
Europe Report N°50
14 Dec 1998
The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has dominated Croatian political life since multi-party elections in April 1990 brought an end to communist rule. The HDZ has been a broad movement rather than a modern political party, representing a wide range of political views and interests, united behind its leader, President Franjo Tudjman, in the aim of achieving Croatian sovereignty and independence. In 1990-91, large areas of the country were taken over by rebellious Croatian Serbs, with support from Belgrade. Thus for most of the period of HDZ rule in Croatia, large chunks of the country remained outside Zagreb's control, and the overriding priority was to restore Croatia's territorial integrity, a goal which was finally achieved in January 1998. Croatia also became enmeshed in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) as, supported by Croatia, the Bosnian Croats fought their erstwhile Bosniac allies in 1993-94. The obsession of Tudjman and the hard-line Herzegovina lobby in the HDZ with the dream of eventually detaching chunks of Bosnian territory and joining them with Croatia has been a persistent cause of international pressure on Croatia, as well as of division within Croatian politics.
Despite his own predilection towards the HDZ right, Tudjman valued the maintenance of balance between different strands in the party, and acknowledged the contribution of relative moderates in broadening the HDZ's domestic support and bringing greater international acceptability. After the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in 1995, many supposed that Croatian policy would shift towards a peacetime agenda of completing the transition to democracy and a market economy, and integrating Croatia into western structures. However, in 1998 the HDZ has shifted firmly to the right, and hard-liners, led by Tudjman's adviser on internal affairs, Ivic Pasalic, have emerged triumphant in the party. This prompted the resignations in October 1998 of leading HDZ moderates Hrvoje Sarinic and Franjo Greguric, amid accusations that Pasalic had manipulated the intelligence services in orchestrating a campaign of political assassination against them. In addition, the defence minister, Andrija Hebrang, failed in his efforts to reform his ministry, which had become a key centre of the shadowy, non-transparent method of rule that has emerged under Tudjman. The defence ministry is also the main conduit of support from Zagreb to the Bosnian Croats. Hebrang too resigned in October.
The triumph of the HDZ right has dispelled any illusions about the nature of the party, as despite efforts by Tudjman to revive the impression of balance within the HDZ, the few remaining moderates are now isolated. The party of Tudjman has been revealed, under the direction of Pasalic, in its true colours, as a party of the nationalist, xenophobic right. Any hope of meaningful change in Croatian policy towards Bosnia while Tudjman remains at the helm will be disappointed. The HDZ has lost credibility due to a succession of scandals, including a crisis at Dubrovacka banka, in which senior HDZ figures were implicated, the allegations regarding the intelligence services, and revelations regarding Tudjman family finances. Deepening social discontent has combined with a widely held perception that a politically-connected elite has enriched itself, while the majority of the population has been impoverished, to bring a sharp decline in popular support for the HDZ.
The opposition may stand to capitalise on HDZ discomfort, and opinion polls suggest that a new six-party opposition grouping has a real chance of defeating the HDZ in elections due in 1999, if it can hold together. As the opposition has gained in confidence, the isolation of remaining relative moderates in the HDZ has increased. Speculation concerning a possible re-alignment in Croatian politics, bringing together HDZ moderates and the opposition, appears now to have been overtaken by events, as opposition leaders are faced with the prospect of winning power without the need of any in the HDZ. As efforts by Tudjman to revamp the HDZ in advance of the elections appear forlorn, whether or not the ruling party can be ousted is largely in the hands of the opposition. An extremely delicate problem for opposition leaders is how to deal with the likelihood that Tudjman, whose mandate as president, his health permitting, lasts until 2002, will try to obstruct the formation of a government excluding the HDZ. Disputes have arisen among the opposition parties on how to approach the HDZ. The leader of the strongest opposition party, Ivica Racan of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) urges that dialogue with Tudjman be maintained, so as to avoid a confrontation between two irreconcilable blocs and contribute to the building of a stable environment for an opposition takeover. Some other opposition leaders are more uncompromising, suspecting that there could be no constructive dialogue with Tudjman.
As the opposition and the HDZ manoeuvre before and after the elections, Croatia is in for a period of instability in the medium term. However, if the HDZ were to be defeated, the outlook for the evolution of a stable democracy in Croatia would be much improved, as would the prospects for an improvement in Croatia's strained international relations. Defeat for Tudjman's HDZ would also have very important consequences for Bosnia, as the current opposition parties would behave much more constructively towards Croatia's neighbour than has been the case under Tudjman.
The trends are encouraging, and there is probably little that the international community could or should do to influence that process. Open international support for a particular political option in Croatia would be likely to be counter-productive. Rather the international community should be consistent in its approach to the Croatian government, irrespective of the party in power. International pressure over such issues as Croatian policy towards Bosnia, the return of Serb refugees, media freedom and electoral reform should be maintained.
Zagreb-Sarajevo, 14 December 1998