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Croatia at the Crossroads
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Croatia At The Crossroads

When looking back at momentous events, people often tend to believe that what happened was not only inevitable, but also somehow deliberate. One of the advantages of living through a historic change is the opportunity it gives one to view things from both sides of the watershed, as it were, with a vision as yet unclouded by historical reinterpretations and revisions. Thus although almost all Croatian politicians like to claim otherwise, I can confidently assert that Croatia became independent of Yugoslavia in June 1991 more as a result of being pushed than because of any plan.

Few may have realized it at the time, but the beginning of the end for Yugoslavia came in May 1980, when President Josip Broz Tito died at the age of 87. Tito, a Croat and a Moscow-trained communist, had led the resistance against Yugoslavia’s German invaders and their homegrown fascist allies during the Second World War, and then ruled the country from 1945 until his death.

While his was a single-party, totalitarian regime, Tito was more a shrewd pragmatist than an ideologue. He had a well-developed sensitivity regarding potentially explosive ethnic issues, and secured for himself a degree of independence from Moscow that was unparalleled in the communist world (Tito’s partisans, not the Red Army, had liberated Yugoslavia from the Nazis). His pragmatism and iron grip on the tiller of state helped him to weather many a storm. He defied (and [End Page 111] outlived) Stalin, dealt skillfully with Cold War divisions by starting the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s, successfully negotiated the partial liberalization of his country and its ruling party, and carried out constant adjustments in the balance of power among Yugoslavia’s various ethnic groups and federal units. Yet like all communist rulers he had a massive and fateful failing: he could not even imagine the state without him, much less take any steps toward relinquishing power.

In the 1970s, Tito conducted the last of several purges, dismissing younger and relatively enlightened leaders from the country’s six republics and two autonomous regions. This lost generation, had it been allowed to stay in office, might have reformed the party and negotiated a peaceful transition away from dictatorship. Whether the old federation would have stayed together or not, these leaders could have set the terms of its union or disunion through peaceful and political rather than warlike means.

Tito left behind a personalized regime (he was even mentioned by name in the 1974 Constitution) with a power vacuum at its core. Things held together by inertia for a while, but eventually there arose a politician—Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia—ruthless, ambitious, and cunning enough to take advantage of the situation. That his power grab coincided with a time of general upheaval across Eastern Europe only made his task easier. By 1990–91, it was becoming apparent that remaining part of Yugoslavia would mean coming under the rule of Milosevic, whose forces had recently stripped the Kosovo region of its autonomy and subjected the mostly Albanian populace there to oppressive measures whose results could be seen every night on television.

A majority of Croatian voters concluded that it would take Croat-nationalist hard-liners to defend Croatia against Milosevic and his Serb-nationalist hard-liners. Thus the first free, multiparty elections in the Yugoslav republic of Croatia, held in April and May 1990, produced a victory for Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which won 41.5 percent of the vote and 68 percent of the seats in parliament under a majoritarian electoral law that the Communists had passed not long before. Like his Serbian counterpart, Tudjman (who had been a Yugoslav army general under Tito) was a communist-turned-nationalist. Controversial at home and abroad, he inspired both fervent devotion and strong resentment. Seen by some as a guarantor of stability, he appeared to others as a warmongering, archaic autocrat. His party continues to dominate Croatian politics today.

Although at time of the 1990 elections there were more than 50 registered parties, 1 these fell along a relatively coherent spectrum of what could be called, for lack...