Revolution or denial?

By Dejan Jovic

(Rtr) - Franjo Tudjman, the first president of the independent Croatian state, was buried on Monday, 13 December 1999. On Thursday, three days later, the employees of the Zagreb communal services "Cistoca" came to St Marko's Square, at the new heart of Croatian politics, with an order "from above" to remove candles and flowers that citizens laid down in honor of their deceased president.

An old lady tried to persuade them not to do so: "Shame on you! How dare you!?," she told the cleaners. She was old enough to remember another President (Josip Broz Tito) and his death (4 May 1980). Tito was mourned and celebrated for the whole decade after his death, not for three days only. He ruled from his grave for about a decade. And he still remains an unavoidable reference when former Yugoslavs (especially those in exile) gather for a wine or beer.

But – the order came "from above," from the nearby office of the President of Zagreb City Council Zlatko Canjuga. Canjuga was, needless to say, Tudjman's troubleshooter in Zagreb, the head or vice-head of almost everything important for Tudjman: the "Croatia" football club, the Zagreb City Council, the Croatian Television Board and the party itself, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Before Tudjman, he was a nobody, as he is most likely to be the same once again after Tudjman.

Countdown to change

However, two weeks before Tudjman's death, while it became obvious that the old leader counted his last hours, it was exactly Canjuga who began de-Tudjmanization of Croatia. First, he proposed that Croatia change its name to "Dinamo" to demonstrate that it was Tudjman (and ONLY Tudjman) who was an obstacle between "us" and "people." Now, surprised by a phone call by his cleaners at St Marko's Square, he agreed to withdraw them for that day, but ordered them to come the next day to do the job.

One more day, and that was it. Only one more! On Friday they came back and removed (still lit) candles and (still fresh) flowers for the Vrhovnik. The following week, Croatian Embassies hosted Christmas receptions as if nothing had happened. Some of them were perhaps a bit confused when receiving condolences – a little inconvenient, but… On New Year's Eve, people celebrated a "Happy New 1989." Not 1990, when Tudjman came to power and the war started in Krajina, but a year before, when Croatian tourism reached its peak, when the average salary was DEM 1000 and when almost everyone believed that Yugoslavia (or at least Croatia) would join EU in a matter of months, if not days.

Three days later they elected an anti-Tudjman coalition of six parties, led by the Social Democrat Ivica Račan, who was not only Tudjman's predecessor but also became his successor at the head of Croatian politics. A month later they only confirmed it by electing the most anti-Tudjman presidential candidate, Stipe Mesic, a man with a a remarkable and unique career as a president of two states, two parties, one government and one parliament in only ten years.

Who's Next?

Tudjman would have laughed had he ever been told who would replace him. "Show me one politician who could do this job," he asked rhetorically in 1997. Mesic and Račan? Hee hee, what a joke! And indeed, Račan's party lost two thirds of its support in only three months after the electoral defeat in 1990. It seemed as they would never recover. Tudjman was proud that Croatia remained one of very few countries in which "Communists would never come back to power." Mesic? His chances of becoming president were low even in the first polls after Tudjman's funeral at 3.6 percent. In fact, at parliamentary elections, he did not even win a seat. His party won only two. The change was, therefore, radical and fast. By the most common understanding of what a "revolution" is ("a radical and fast change"), this was a revolution.

But was it really a revolution, a crucial, deep change in Croatian political history? Or, was it only one of many episodes of fast changes that in fact only at first sight look deep? When Tudjman came to power, to many it looked like a "revolution", a victory of a democrat over Communism. Unlike Serbia, it has been argued, Croatia decided to make a crucial step from "Communism" to "democracy," and to join Europe. It took some time to realize that Tudjman was indeed an anti-Yugoslav and anti-Communist, but neither was he a democrat nor a pro-European. How do we know that this event will not be the same: a big change which does not change much?

There is no doubt that a figure like Tudjman is very unlikely to be repeated in the post-Tudjman era. In many ways he was a unique and unrepeatable character. What, however, Croatia now needs to demonstrate is that it is ready to face its own responsibility for the emergence of Tudjman in the first place. The speed with which the change happened left Croats in no position to think deeply about themselves and their own contribution (as an electorate and as active or tacit participants in Tudjman's policy) over ten years of his rule.

"It was all him, and ONLY him," many would say today. Once he died, everything changed. Even Canjuga changed. But why was it necessary to wait until someone else (the Invisible Hand), rather than citizens themselves, removed Tudjman from power? Was it really that Croatia (and, indeed, Serbia in this respect!) had to wait for its autocratic ruler to die before making autocracy impossible?

Laying the Blame

It is very easy to say that it was Tudjman, and ONLY Tudjman, who spoiled the chance of Croatia becoming a respected and democratic country in the 1990s. Easy and incorrect. Because regardless of his militarism and autocracy, Tudjman did not occupy Croatia. He came to power at fairly democratic elections in 1990, only to be re-elected in 1992 and 1997 without even a run-up. His power was not based on tanks on the streets of Zagreb (though it was fortified with tanks in Knin and in Mostar). He did not manage to silence the opposition media or parties, and people were not ignorant of his style of ruling over Croatia.

It is too naive even to imagine that people had a reason to believe that Mr Kutle earned his wealth by working incredibly hard (as a Stakhanovite perhaps?), or that the HVO soldiers indeed had absolutely nothing to do with Croatia, since they were in another country. In fact, large-circulation newspapers (such as Feral Tribune, Novi List, Nacional and Globus) bombarded the Croatian public with documents of massive corruption, unlawful violence against (Serb) minority during the operation "Storm" and its aftermath, etc. Everyone knew that this would certainly be impossible had Tudjman not shielded the crime and violence. Finally, he awarded many of those involved by various forms of immunity from prosecution.

Why did the Croats simply choose to ignore it? Why did they close their eyes for so long until something else, the Force of Destiny itself, did the job for them?

Tudjman's death was indeed a relief to many Croats. But it was a perfect scapegoat too.

It was him and ONLY him, not us! We did not know! We could not do anything! We never agreed with him! We always wanted him to go… Just as we always wanted Communism to go, and Nazism of the Second World War to go too! We never voted for him! We were never members of his party, or at least - we never REALLY belonged to it, only formally. We were always democrats, Europeans, somehow unfortunate with the geography, with these bloody Balkans in our neighborhood…

This is today once again heard by "ordinary" Croats.

An Elective Dictatorship

But Tudjman was not elected by somebody else! Indeed, unlike Tito and [Vlatko] Pavletic, Tudjman came to power as a choice of the Croatian electorate. He always represented a large, indeed the largest segment of Croatian population. He, therefore, WAS what the Croats wanted. And the Croats have to face it, rather than to deny that they have ever met him. It was NOT him and only him. It was US and only US. He was possible because we made him possible. But instead of making him impossible, we were waiting for somebody or something else to take him away. Only then we buried him, fast, deeply and irrevocably. Until the next resurrection!

Despite the "radical" change, Croatia is still living its past and it will continue to do so for as long as it does not find strength to face it. To face it means to accept responsibility for what Tudjman did or did not do with the "blessing" of the largest segment of the Croatian electorate, and which enabled him to stay

in power for as long as he was alive. This segment is now trying to remove its own responsibility by blaming the deceased (Tudjman, Susak, Boban…) for what they themselves made possible. And they think that an order from "above," a couple of cleaners at St Marko's Square, a name or two changed, old photos removed, a mirror smashed by stone and a veil of forgetting the past will do the job.

The main task of the new government should be, therefore, to bring the past in front of the nation and to prevent the nation from turning its eyes blind or its head away. No matter how painful it might be, this is the only way to make sure that it will never happen again.

Dejan Jovic is Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

Original article