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Croatia Reborn

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.

1.

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 found a dead phone in his office. This, it is widely believed, had been a direct line from Tudjman to Milosevic; but whether it actually ever worked is open to question. When the Mesic team began opening up rooms in the presidential palace, they found an archive of some 830 tapes and 17,000 transcripts of conversations between Tudjman and just about every single person who had visited him since 1991. “These are the microphones,” Mesic says, pointing at some black pads on the table. “They are recording us now, simply for practical reasons.”

Tudjman was obsessed with history. That is why he taped everything. What he obviously did not take into account was that, within months of his death, the tapes and transcripts would be used in a systematic fashion to destroy his reputation and those of his close collaborators, or at least those who, unlike Mesic, had not fallen out with him by the end of his life.

But the tapes have done far more than shatter the reputation of the Second World War Partisan fighter, Yugoslav Communist general, and football fanatic who led Croatia to independence, fought a war with the Serbs, and then connived with Milosevic to dismember Bosnia. They have revealed that Tudjman’s Croatia was rotten to the core; that with his blessing, the HDZ elite pillaged every public institution in sight and virtually bank-rupted the country. To be more precise they have served to offer proof of what many suspected—but the shock is that the damage inflicted on Croatia by the Tudjman regime was far, far greater than anyone ever dared to imagine.

Over the last few months Croats have been both titillated and appalled by the revelations now leaking out of the president’s office. For example, on April 8 last year, two weeks after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began, Tudjman was discussing his favorite topic, the division of Bosnia, with one of his ministers. First they made derisory remarks about anyone who thought that the Bosnia created at the Dayton, Ohio, talks in November 1995, presided over by Richard Holbrooke, had a future. “There is no serious man who does not claim that Bosnia will fall apart,” said Tudjman. Tudjman was irritated by the NATO bombings because Croatia had just signed some important business contracts with Serbian industries.

Still, he thought that the war might give him some opportunities that he could exploit. He mused about calling for an international conference in which Bosnia would now be formally divided between Serbia and Croatia. The Muslims would be given a small chunk to be called Muslimania and Kosovo would be divided between Serbia and Albania. Tudjman reckoned that by giving Milosevic some Serbian parts of Bosnia and trading him the southernmost tip of Croatia, the Serbian leader “would then have a victory which he could show the Serbs in exchange for the lost portions of Kosovo.”

Another transcript discusses a major missile system that the Croats managed to buy sometime between 1991 and August 1995, while a third of their country was still under Serbian rule. The missiles were acquired from the Ukrainian mafia and imported despite the UN arms embargo on the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The problem was that the Ukrainians had tricked the Croats; the missiles were of less use than a packet of garden fireworks, since they came without the necessary guidance systems.

Considering what to do with the rockets, Tudjman and his entourage hit on the idea of a major military parade, which would at least serve to intimidate the Serbs, who would see the missiles on television. After that, they could be sold to the Israelis; but someone pointed out that this might pose problems, especially since the Croats had successfully double-crossed the Ukrainians—who hadn’t been paid for their dud missiles anyway.

A more recent transcript reveals a 1998 arms shipment from Azerbaijan to Croatia in which the accompanying documents stated that the “end user” was an American company. The real destination for these arms—whether the Kosovo Liberation Army or the Montenegrin police—remains unclear, and, according to Mesic, is now the subject of a government inquiry.

It is the real story,” said Ivo Pukanic, the editor of the weekly Nacional, who is a friend of Mesic and who has been publishing many of the transcripts. “You can find everything about the real Croatian past on these tapes.”

Well, almost everything. Slaven Letica, an academic, a former Tudjman adviser, and a leading commentator in the Croatian press, accuses Mesic and the government of Ivica Racan, the reform Communist prime minister, of leaking the tapes and transcripts selectively and for political reasons, “which, from an ethical point of view, is unacceptable.” Letica charges that the President “is making Croatia a kind of banana republic. This is too serious to be done only for the sheer fun of Mesic and his aides.”

Mesic denies this and says that requests to see the transcripts are reviewed by a commission of three people; so long as they are not “classified as military secrets they can be used freely.” What is interesting though is that, thus far, nothing has been disclosed about the conduct of the wars in Croatia or Bosnia. In fact, most of what has been published has been about relatively recent events. The reason could be that state secrets are involved; it could be that people like Mesic himself were, at various times, close to Tudjman. Or, as is also widely believed, it may be that much of the most sensitive material was removed in the three weeks between Tudjman’s death and the election of the new government. According to the Croatian press, 154 pounds of the most sensitive documents were removed by Miroslav Tudjman, the President’s eldest son, who was then the head of the secret services, and Ivica Pasalic, his top adviser. Miroslav Tudjman denies this but, significantly, he has not taken the matter to court.

If, as seems likely, there are missing documents, they may well include conversations with Milosevic, or with the intermediaries used by the Serbian and Croatian leaders. The Croatian press believes they include sensitive material about Croatia’s help to the Bosnian Croats in their bid to carve out a separate Croatian state in Bosnia. Croatia would have annexed this state when the time was right. They are also believed to include conversations between Tudjman and Dario Kordic, the former Bosnian Croat leader now awaiting trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

If it is true that sensitive documents were removed, however, those who took them did not have time to smuggle out of the presidential palace the transcripts concerning the wholesale plunder of the economy by Tudjman’s entourage. The discussions about economic issues, especially so-called privatizations, make for horrifying reading. They make clear that until now, through systems of fake accounting, borrowing, and shunting money through closed circles of companies and banks, the former regime just about managed to keep the economy afloat. Now the new government will have to pay the price of putting things right.

A typical privatization, but one that had more political significance than others, was the takeover of Vecernji List, one of Croatia’s main daily papers. The transcripts of the conversations between Tudjman and Ivica Pasalic reveal that, using a Virgin Islands-based company set up by the HDZ and funded by money from Croatian banks, Tudjman’s party bought the paper illegally.

Pasalic said to Tudjman: “I’ve created a big smokescreen around the whole thing because we must not let it appear, even from an airplane, that this has anything to do with us.” Tudjman answered: “That’s fine. Our interest is to have it under our control,” to which Pasalic noted: “For the benefit of those outside we will also create the illusion of democratization, privatization, and so on.”

Behavior like this was the norm. “Well, we all knew it,” says Mesic, “and so did the citizens because they knew there was no rule of law…. However what we did not know was the high extent of the indebtedness of Croatia and we did not know so much capital had leaked out of the country.” Mesic concludes that what happened “has destroyed the Croatian economy” and that “it’s incredible how a democratically elected government allowed this brutal robbery of their own people. I mean it was really astonishing and shameless, the way it was done…. The result was disaster.”

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