Reformed communist set to be Croatian PM

ZAGREB, Jan 4, 2000 -- (Reuters) Ivica Racan is a slow-speaking former communist boss who ironically gained fame in 1990 as the man who helped Croatia break free from Yugoslav communism.

A decade later Racan, 55, is back in the political limelight, poised to form a new government and ready to end the international isolation imposed on Croatia during the iron-fisted rule of the late President Franjo Tudjman. Racan's Social Democrats, allied with the Social Liberals, took a clear lead in nine out of Croatia's 10 multi-member constituencies, according to early results, putting him in the driving seat to start coalition talks with another opposition bloc.

Barring a major surprise, the bearded, gray-haired career politician should emerge from the negotiations sometime over the next month as Croatia's new premier.

"I am ready to become prime minister. I am aware it is not going to be easy, but I am not going to avoid responsibility," Racan said early on Tuesday after the first results were made public.

Previous defeat

His return to the top flight is all the more surprising given that his reformed communists almost vanished after Croatia's first free polls in 1990, when the nationalist conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) swept to victory.

The HDZ sought to tarnish Racan's image during the election campaign, portraying him and his party as old-fashioned "reds".

But Racan says he has embraced the market economy, and told Reuters in a recent interview that he wanted to bring Croatia closer to Europe, boost employment and improve living standards.

"It is time to say goodbye to the past and focus on current problems and the future, because I do believe Croatia has a future," he said after casting his ballot on Monday.

Trained as a lawyer, Racan has long concentrated on politics. He headed the Croatian Communist Party's central committee in 1989-90, just before the winds of change started blowing across Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Racan renamed the party, overhauled its program and took the bold decision to allow multi-party elections in Croatia while it was still a Yugoslav republic.

His party was swept away by an avalanche of nationalist sentiment and fared badly in subsequent elections as Tudjman strengthened his grip on the country.

Cautious moderate

But Racan doggedly stuck to his task, working hard to boost his appeal with younger voters. Less than a month after Tudjman's death he has successfully tapped into a widespread desire for change and seized the political initiative.

Although a moderate himself and cautious in his public statements, he has spearheaded opposition criticism of the HDZ and often slammed its human rights, foreign and economic policy.

Two years ago Racan stunned the public by admitting he had taken light drugs in his youth. During the short election campaign in December he brought up his student background as a footloose rocker to promote his coalition.

He regularly appeared at rock concerts to make fiery speeches to the young audience about the need for change.

With unemployment at a record 20 percent and the economy going into reverse last year, Racan will now have the difficult task of implementing those changes.

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