LONDON, Dec 14, 1999 -- (Reuters) The world snubbed Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in death on Monday in a posthumous rebuke to his authoritarian, nationalist rule.
With the exception of Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, no senior foreign head of state attended Tudjman's funeral, and most Western countries sent only their ambassadors.
The prime ministers of neighboring Hungary and Slovenia, the ethnic Croat member of Bosnia's collective presidency and the premier of fellow former Yugoslav republic Macedonia were at the graveside.
But it was scant consolation for Croats who consider their reborn nation to be at the historic heart of Europe.
"Why are none of the major powers' senior officials coming to Tudjman's funeral?" the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List asked.
"The funeral of President Tudjman has turned into a manifestation of Croatia's utter isolation. The fact that no one wanted to come...speaks best about how Tudjman's Croatia had no friends," leading commentator Davor Butkovic wrote in the paper.
For Western governments, the decision to stay away was not hard to reach.
Tudjman may have been the father of Croatian independence in 1991, but he sanctioned ethnic cleansing against Croatian Serbs and stoked the war in Bosnia before helping bring it to an end.
NATO officials say that, even after he signed the Dayton peace accords, Tudjman backed hard-line Bosnian Croats in their efforts to undermine the peace settlement, failed to cooperate with the U.N. war crimes tribunal and left a politically and economically unreformed state in a shambles.
Western leaders had criticised Tudjman's revival of some of the symbols of Croatia's pro-Nazi Ustashe past as well as the lack of media freedom.
"Staying away, I think, sent the right message. This was a man who was widely considered as authoritarian and not at all fulfilling the norms and standards of the Western world he said he aspired to," a NATO diplomat said.
Could HDZ gain from snub?
Butkovic said the Western message could paradoxically benefit Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, which has thrived on Croatia's international ostracism, in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
"Such demonstration of distaste for Tudjman will not only strengthen and unite the voting base of the HDZ, which is anti-European anyway, but may seriously affect those who are still undecided," he wrote.
However, West European officials argue that most Croatians are acutely aware of the international acceptance and prosperity that will continue to pass their country by unless they adopt democratic reforms and clean up the crony capitalism of the Tudjman era.
Only last weekend, they saw Romania and Bulgaria, far poorer Balkan neighbors, move a step closer to coveted membership of the European Union by winning a commitment to open accession negotiations in February.
Croatia is not even in the EU's waiting room. It is denied access to the EU's PHARE aid program for post-communist Central and Eastern Europe because of its record on democracy.
Nor is it a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which provides military cooperation to former Soviet republics in Central Asia which have no better records on democracy or human rights than Croatia.
Diplomats said EU leaders coordinated their response after Tudjman's death at a weekend summit in Helsinki.
New EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana set the tone on Saturday with a perfunctory tribute to Tudjman that concentrated on the need for Croatia to become a better democracy.
"We need to hope now that the elections that will take place in Croatia and the new political situation will help Croatia to move in the direction of being a democratic country," he said.
Italy's deputy foreign minister was the highest-ranking government official from an EU member to attend the funeral.
No hasty embrace
EU officials said they expect pressure from Austria and Italy for an early opening towards to post-Tudjman Croatia.
"The biggest mistake would be to embrace post-Tudjman Croatia too soon, before it has made real reforms. Neighboring states such as Hungary, Austria and Italy may push us to do so but we must hold out for substantial change," one said.
The United States found Tudjman a useful ally in its effort to halt the Bosnia conflict in 1995. It covertly helped Croatia rearm and reorganize its army and encouraged Zagreb to speed up an offensive against Bosnian Serb forces to maximize pressure on Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Peter Galbraith, the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who helped negotiate the Dayton peace accords, told Reuters at the funeral: "It is no secret that my country had disagreements on human rights, democracy, the rights of minorities."
But he said the death of the 77-year-old former Communist partisan and army general closed a chapter in history.
Whether his successor was HDZ Foreign Minister Mate Granic, opposition Social Democrat leader Ivica Racan or Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa, they would have a different policy.
"None of them is interested in a Greater Croatia. All of them have an understanding of what democratic practice is," Galbraith said.
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