Croatia's democratic message

January 6, 2000

The stinging electoral defeat inflicted on Croatia's ruling party this week is encouraging news for the entire Balkan region, especially if it is followed by the election of a reform-minded president in separate votes later this month.

Croatia and Serbia were the two most militarily powerful states to emerge from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Under Franjo Tudjman, Croatia pursued a course of intolerant and aggressive ethnic nationalism similar to, though slightly less virulent than, that of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Tudjman also copied Mr. Milosevic's pattern of domestic repression behind a veneer of free elections. In both countries, the results have been economic decline and diplomatic isolation. With this election, Croatia now has a chance of emerging from isolation and revitalizing its economy. Serbian voters would do well to follow Croatia's example.

The grip of the Croatian Democratic Union was faltering even before Mr. Tudjman's death last month. Now with the party's most popular leader gone and its parliamentary candidates repudiated at the polls, the path seems open to a more democratic, prosperous and westward-looking Croatia.

The reformers have pledged to work for press freedom, human rights, cooperation with the West in Bosnia and the surrender of Croatian suspects to the international war crimes tribunal. The last will require standing up to strong nationalist sentiment in all parties. The new majority has also pledged to carry out economic reforms designed to shrink the government and reduce corruption. Some of these will require unpopular spending cuts. Another potential obstacle lies in Croatia's Constitution, which makes the president far more powerful than Parliament. But both major presidential candidates, including the newly chosen nominee of Mr. Tudjman's party, are relative moderates.

If Croatian policies change as promised, the United States and Europe should reward Zagreb's new leaders with an invitation to join NATO's Partnership for Peace. The European Union should also give serious consideration to eventual Croatian membership. The most effective answer to destructive Balkan nationalism is democratic renewal. Croatia now seems ready to point the way.


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