'Handover of power too slow'

ZAGREB, Jan 6, 2000 -- (Reuters) Prime minister-in-waiting Ivica Racan, whose center-left alliance triumphed in Croatia's general election, said on Wednesday the handover of power was taking too long.

In his first address to the foreign media after Monday's victory, Racan outlined the main foreign and domestic policy goals of his government and promised Croatia would start cooperating with the United Nations war crimes tribunal.

But he complained the process of taking over from the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was cumbersome and had been further complicated by a presidential poll on January 24.

"The situation does not allow for too long a power vacuum. Unfortunately, if we honor all the (constitutional) deadlines, the new Cabinet will not be in place before February 10," Racan told the news conference.

Only the president can appoint the prime minister, but if no candidate wins more than half the votes on January 24 there will be a second round runoff two weeks later.

"We will do our best to ensure that the new president is elected in the first round in order to shorten the power vacuum," Racan said.

The presidential election was called following the death last month of Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia to independence in 1991 and ruled it with an iron fist until his demise.

Racan's Social Democrats and their junior coalition partners, the Social Liberals, have united behind Drazen Budisa as their presidential candidate.

Tough economic future

As the 55-year-old Racan talked to reporters at his party headquarters, a group of workers staged a noisy demonstration outside to protest against late payment of salaries and the controversial privatization of a local alcohol factory.

"It is not going to be easy for us," Racan said, adding that his government would ask people to make sacrifices while at the same time cutting the wages and privileges of state officials.

"This is not going to be financially significant as much as morally important," Racan said.

The new government would try to prove that forging closer ties with Europe was in the best interests of the country, he said, adding that Croatia would spend no more than "several years" waiting for full membership of the European Union.

The West has ostracized Croatia in protest at Tudjman's hardline rule, accusing him of flouting democracy, suppressing media freedom and human rights, and meddling in the affairs of neighboring states - notably Bosnia.

Referring to thousands of Serb refugees who fled the country in 1995 and whose return was obstructed by the outgoing government, Racan said: "We guarantee that there will be no problems for anyone who wants to return."

Racan said Zagreb would respect its obligations towards the U.N. tribunal in The Hague and indicated the new regime would remove political control of the judiciary and allow it to investigate war crimes committed by Croatian troops during Balkan conflicts from 1991 to 1995.

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