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A Turning Point for Croatia

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Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images
Former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader at the Jasenovac Memorial Area, where, in April 2005, he gave a speech expressing regrets to the Serbian, Jewish, Roma, and Croatian victims of the mass killings carried out by the Ustasha during World War II. He was arrested on charges of corruption in December 2010 and is awaiting trial.

December 2010 was the stormiest month in Croatian public life since the war in Croatia and Bosnia ended fifteen years ago. Former prime minister Ivo Sanader learned on the morning of December 9 that judicial proceedings had been launched against him for major acts of corruption and that his parliamentary immunity would be revoked. He fled to Slovenia that afternoon and disappeared completely for twenty-four hours. The Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs immediately issued an international arrest warrant for him. There were rumors that Sanader intended to fly from Munich to the United States, but the US government revoked his visa. The Austrian police arrested him on a highway not far from Salzburg in the early afternoon of December 10 and took him to a jail in Salzburg. There during Christmas and New Year’s he shared a cell with a notorious international swindler.

How had this happened? Sanader was a rising star in Croatian and European politics. For nine years he had been the president of Croatia’s strongest right-wing party, the Croatian Democratic Union, becoming prime minister in 2003. At one time opinion polls showed him to be the most popular Croatian politician, although he usually ranked behind the president, Stjepan Mesić.

Fluent in four European languages, Sanader was also a favorite among delegates to the European Parliament in Brussels and especially among the leaders of the international European Peoples’ Party, an alliance of center-right political parties from thirty-nine European countries. The heads of four member parties, Angela Merkel, Kostas Karamanlis, Bertie Ahern, and Jean-Claude Juncker, who at that time were the prime ministers of their respective countries—Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Luxembourg—went so far as to appear in a two-minute commercial that ran on television several times a day during Croatia’s parliamentary elections in 2007. They called Sanader “a great statesman” who had “done great things for Croatia,” is “esteemed in Europe and has great influence,” and “is our friend.”

In November 2010, when Sanader sent a desperate letter to these same leaders asking for help because he was being “subjected to political persecution,” not one of them responded. Then on May 9, 2011, a court in Salzburg accepted the Croatian government’s request for Sanader’s extradition to Croatia. However, the legal proceedings for his extradition will probably last several months to a year. Public expectation here is now very high that Sanader’s trial will take place in an open court in which a senior government official will reveal details about the scale and extent of official corruption in the country.

The explanation for Sanader’s fall lies in deeply embedded political traditions of southeastern Europe. Here corruption has a long history as an integral part of government administration. The novelist Ivo Andrić described in detail how corruption worked in Bosnia and other South Slav countries under the four-hundred-year rule of the Ottoman Empire: people knew exactly whom to pay, how much to pay, and what result would be achieved by paying. In the other South Slav countries that were under Austrian, Hungarian, or Venetian rule until the twentieth century—Slovenia, Croatia, and Dalmatia—bribery was considerably less widespread, but corruption in the form of conferred privileges and payoffs from official funds was more sophisticated. It was very much the same in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941. Under the fascist and collaborationist regimes during World War II, corruption rapidly developed in all forms and at all levels. In more fortunate cases, bribery sometimes even saved lives. For example, half of the Alexander family, the wealthiest Jewish family in Zagreb, managed to obtain passports and go to Switzerland, where they survived the Holocaust.

In Communist Yugoslavia private businesses and ownership were reduced to a minimum and the accumulation of great wealth was not possible, but corruption became important throughout society. To its faithful officials, the ruling Communist Party granted better-paid jobs and numerous other privileges, which provided social power and such advantages as better housing. These privileges were not permanent, however, not even for Tito himself, and they could not be inherited. They were provisional compensation for loyalty or obedience that could be revoked at any moment. The best-known Yugoslav Communist dissident, Milovan Djilas, described this system of corruption in detail in his book The New Class and other writings, for which he was sentenced to prison.

Although Yugoslav communism under Tito’s regime was more bearable and to some extent more economically successful than the variants in countries occupied and dominated by the Soviet Union, its unique form of Party privilege undermined social life and contributed to the failure and dissolution of the country. Small-time opportunists and careerists had much success and those with independent ideas had a hard time surviving. After Tito’s death in 1980, and certainly as communism in general began to crumble in 1988 and 1989, there were no longer any leaders at the head of multinational Yugoslavia who could carry out a peaceful transition to a multiparty democracy. The unscrupulous and combative Slobodan Milošević, who in 1987 took complete control of the Serbian Communist Party and government, exploited an extreme form of Serbian nationalist sentiment in an attempt to impose a dictatorial regime on all of Yugoslavia. His actions encouraged separatist tendencies and extreme nationalism in the non-Serb populations of Yugoslavia.

When the process of secession started and Franjo Tudjman came to power in 1990, he instituted a policy of discrimination against Croatia’s ethnic Serbs, 12% of whom declared themselves as Serbs and more than 6% as Yugoslavs. Serbian judges were dismissed and Serbian TV journalists were fired. Serbs became even more concerned when the new Croatian constitution changed their legal status from a “constitutive nationality” as in the previous Yugoslav constitution to an “ethnic minority.”

Such events allowed Milošević to justify further aggressive action by claiming that he was defending Serbs in Croatia. Encouraged by Milošević, ethnic Serbs formed a separate state on Croatian territory and in 1991 war broke out between Croats and Serbs. It quickly spread to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Serbs fought Bosnians and Croats, Croats fought Serbs and later Bosnians, and the Bosnians were forced to fight each of the other two. The consequences were catastrophic: members of all three nationalities were expelled from territories occupied or taken over by either of the other two, and there was a mass expulsion and exodus of Serbs from Croatia in 1995. The war ended with the Dayton Agreement of November 1995, an imperfect document that has served its immediate purpose to stop the fighting and to establish a constitution for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but that has not resolved the country’s long-term problems of ethnic coexistence.

The epilogue was the war in Kosovo and the bombing of Belgrade by NATO in 1999, followed a year later by the arrest and extradition of Milošević to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, where he died during his detention. From these wars seven more or less devastated small countries emerged—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

Many of the troubles in Croatia today have their roots in the time of Franjo Tudjman, the first president of the independent Republic of Croatia that emerged in 1991 with a population of some 4.7 million people. During World War II he was a passionate Communist, fighting for four years in the ranks of the partisans and ascending to the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army (JNA) in Belgrade, where he became in 1960 the country’s youngest major general as well as a senior Party official inside the army. Stung by the pointed jests of his fellow army officers, who downplayed the role of Croatian partisans in winning the war, he became more nationalist during his last years in Belgrade and more willing to defend the accomplishments of Croatian partisans in his historical writings. Leading military historians and Montenegrin and Serbian generals complained with reason that his articles exaggerated the role of the Croatian partisans during World War II and diminished the contributions of the other peoples of Yugoslavia. Tudjman left the army in 1961 and moved from Belgrade to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, where he became director of the Institute of Croatian History. During a discussion there about a book that I had coauthored, I heard him very energetically put forth his guiding principle: “Of course one should write the truth, but only when it is not contrary to the national interest.”

In his nationalist writings Tudjman was very bold in criticizing the centralization of political power in Belgrade and calling for greater Croatian autonomy within Yugoslavia. Several times he crossed the boundary of what could and couldn’t be said under the Communist regime. In 1972 and in 1981 he was convicted of “subversive activities” and “spreading enemy propaganda,” and spent a total of three years in prison. He acquired the reputation of a courageous political dissident and a consistent fighter for Croatian rights. With this reputation and his intense ambition, and with weak competition, he won the first free election for president in 1990.

Tudjman’s wartime experience and military education helped him to lead the country successfully in the wars of secession, but his years spent in a party organized on Bolshevik principles and a military-style hierarchy left him unprepared for democracy. With his authoritarian tendencies and military and Party upbringing, Tudjman retained to the end a Bolshevik mentality; the first constitution of independent Croatia, adopted in the fall of 1990, was tailored to his wishes. The president of the republic was granted enormous authority. From the very beginning, Tudjman organized the government in two tracks—an institutional one and an extra-institutional one. A very peculiar system of corruption emerged in Croatia, coordinated from the top of the state.

In the first track, free elections with rival competing parties were routinely held, mostly with due respect to democratic process. The public was to some extent free to discuss issues and to voice political criticisms. There were some independent newspapers, although television remained under government control. Nevertheless, Croatia seemed, at least, to be a newborn democracy with all of the usual problems, including the need for many of the institutions of a civil society, particularly citizen groups concerned to limit authoritarian power.

In the other, extra-institutional track, Tudjman ruled as a dictator. When state property was privatized and denationalized, Tudjman and his close associates could decide who would get what and on what terms. By handing out land and properties, he ensured the fidelity of key officials, whom he had appointed and placed throughout government according to his will and needs. They were mainly trusted members of Tudjman’s own Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which was organized on hierarchical lines, with strict party discipline, very much like the organization of the Communist Party when it was in power. Many of its leading members became extremely rich, and many tycoons were created within a few years.

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