Croatia Reborn

Stipe Mesic
Stipe Mesic; drawing by David Levine

The face of Franjo Tudjman has turned a horrible gangrene yellow. What is surprising is that Tudjman, the man who led Croatia to independence in 1991, died only last December. Yet no one seems to care that the photograph of the father of the nation that hangs in the lobby of Zagreb’s grand Esplanade Hotel is deteriorating so rapidly that soon you won’t be able to make out his features at all.

Croats talk of the “change of atmosphere.” In fact, ever since Tudjman’s death and the collapse of his party, the once all-powerful Croatian Democratic Union, the HDZ, in January’s elections, Croatia has begun a transformation little short of a quiet revolution. Whether it will complete the transformation is another question.


“Secret Agent Bak here…. I hear you’ll be seeing two journalists tomorrow. In fact they are eating and drinking with me now,” says Ivan Zvonimir Cicak. A nationalist dissident under communism and tireless human rights activist for the last ten years, he lies back on his couch, laughs, and tries to fix a time for his friend the new president of Croatia, Stipe Mesic, to come to his house for a barbecue. Cicak says to us: “The President sends you his regards.”

We are in Cicak’s hilltop house in Celine, a village in the hills close to the Slovene border. A Croatian television crew has just left. “Ha!” Cicak says. “They didn’t visit for ten years and now they are here every day!” Meanwhile, on the phone, Stipe Mesic, at the presidential palace, is receiving an earful from Cicak, who is concerned about a government measure to ban the public display of symbols of the Nazi-quisling or Ustasha state which ruled Croatia from 1941 to 1945. “Listen Stipe,” he says, “once you start, where do you stop? You’ll have to do [Serbian] Chetnik symbols, Yugoslav ones, Communist ones…. It’s better to fight them with arguments than by banning things.”

Stipe Mesic, in office since February, has some presidential experience. In fact he was once the president of another country, although the problems he faced then were rather different. He was the last president of the old Yugoslavia. During the awful summer of 1991, as Croatia began its slide into war, interminable meetings were held in the vast airport-like Federation Palace in Belgrade. Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, then the president of Serbia—and now the president of what remains of Yugoslavia—Mesic would slip outside for a cigarette and a joke with the journalists, who were being devoured by mosquitoes and trying to find out what was going on from the waitresses serving tea.

Later Mesic wrote a book called How We Destroyed Yugoslavia. Unlike Tudjman, the new Croatian president has a highly developed sense of humor. One has to wonder whether his next book might be called The Laughs in the Tudjman Tapes.

When he took office in February Mesic…

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