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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
Franjo Tudjman - an obituary
by Branka Magas

As the one who led Croatia to independence, Tudjman secured a special place in the country's history. Yet history is also bound to judge him harshly, because of his cavalier attitude to the country's true interests, because of his policy towards neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, and not least because of his persistent hostility to Croatia's citizens of Serb and Bosnian descent - all of which has contributed to the country's present international isolation.

Death arguably saved him from indictment by the Hague Tribunal, for his overall command responsibility for war crimes committed by Zagreb's proxy forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the unpunished brutalities visited upon defenceless Serbs who have remained in, or tried to return to, Croatia.

Franjo Tudjman was born on 14 May 1922 in Veliko Trgovisce, a small town north west of Zagreb, into a family of small farmers and occasional innkeepers settled there since the 18th century. His father Stjepan was active in the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), which dominated political life in interwar Croatia, and in 1936 was elected mayor of the town. With his first wife Justina he had five children: the first two (both girls) died early, leaving three boys of whom Franjo was the eldest. The family suffered further tragedies: in 1929 Franjo was devastated by the unexpected death of his mother, in 1943 his youngest brother was killed as a Partisan, and in 1946 his father shot himself and his second wife in a fit of mental depression. Tudjman was never to admit the true circumstances of their deaths, long claiming that they were victims of Ustasha terror, later of Communism.


When in the spring of 1941 the Nazis dismantled Yugoslavia and established the puppet `Independent State of Croatia' run by the Ustashe, Franjo, who had recently completed his secondary schooling in Zagreb, joined the Communist-led resistance along with his father and brothers, at first publishing and distributing Party literature, later serving as a political commissar in the local Partisan force. His father became a member of the first Anti-Fascist Council set up by the Partisans in June 1943. Franjo's own wartime record, however, was not brilliant: his relations with Party colleagues were often conflictual, his military contribution was insignificant, and he was even accused of cowardice. Forced on several occasions to discipline him, the Party refrained from promoting him and gave him relatively low-ranking and purely administrative responsibilities. In the summer of 1944, however, when Tito asked the Croatian general staff to send cadres to work in the newly established Federal Secretariat for People's Defence, Tudjman was given the rank of major and seconded to the general staff of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). He arrived in Belgrade in early 1945 and was to remain there until the end of 1961.

Though Tudjman's work was again of an administrative nature, he also attended the Higher Military Academy. After graduating in 1957, he was promoted to the rank of colonel and put in charge of the general staff's research section. In this post he worked on the concept (based on the Partisans' wartime experience) of `total people's defence', while acting as secretary of the section's party committee and promoting official policy with great zeal. He became an assistant to the editor-in-chief of the Military Encyclopedia, writing for its third volume an essay on the national liberation war in Croatia.


It was during his time in Belgrade that Tudjman became a nationalist. This was due, in part, to his frustration with his superiors' failure to promote him to the rank of general, but mainly to the fact that in Belgrade he encountered a number of Serb and Montenegrin generals and military historians who openly belittled Croatia's contribution to the Partisan struggle. Tudjman first polemicized with this attitude in newspaper articles, then in 1957 published War against War as a systematic challenge to all those who sought to deny that the Partisan forces, albeit multi-national, had been nationally based and fought to liberate Yugoslavia's individual nations. This dispute about the past was in fact part of a more general conflict within the JNA command at the time, between those who favoured a centralized, Soviet-style defence doctrine and those who advocated the concept of `total people's defence', which implied decentralized armed forces based on Yugoslavia's constituent republics. This military debate reflected in turn a wider political battle, which emerged in 1958 when a new programme was being finalized for the Yugoslav League of Communists, between proponents of state and Party centralism (generally perceived as favouring Serbia and the Serbs) and advocates of a decentralized political and constitutional order (predominant at the Federal Party level). It was in this context that Tudjman's essay on the war in Croatia was approved by Tito himself. As time went on, however, Tudjman's views radicalized. He began to denigrate wartime resistance efforts in Serbia and Montenegro, while praising a priori all that the Croatian Partisans had done. In his The Formation of Socialist Yugoslavia (1960), he broke with Communist orthodoxy by effectively rehabilitating the domobranstvo - the Ustasha state's conscript home guard, against which he himself had fought.

This, combined with lack of fighting experience, precluded further advancement in Tudjman's military career. His prospects were additionally blighted when it was discovered that substantial parts of his two books had been plagiarized. In 1961, however, just as he was on the point of being pensioned off, fate intervened in the shape of Vladimir Bakaric, the Party leader in Croatia, who invited Tudjman to head an Institute for the History of the Working-Class Movement just being established in Zagreb. The Institute was to have the task of promoting the Croatian party's view of the past, the better to defend Croatia's interests in the present. As a career soldier and Communist of long standing, Tudjman appeared an uncontroversial appointment. At Bakaric's request he was given the rank of general and sent back to Croatia.

The Institute was generously funded and Tudjman became its effective master. It soon became clear, however, that he was using it not so much to further scientific research into recent Croatian history as in order to promote his own political career. Much of the Institute's ample staff was pressed into servicing his publishing and political ambitions. His chief adviser became Vaso Bogdanov, a Serb from Vojvodina who had been expelled from the Communist Party back in 1939 for defending the Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement. This accord, pressed on the royalist regime in Belgrade by the British on the eve of World War II, had involved the creation within Yugoslavia of an autonomous `Croatian Banovina', embracing not just Croatia itself but also half of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tudjman now began to defend publicly the Agreement's virtues, in direct contravention of the official, highly negative, Communist assessment of it. The Croatian party leadership at once realized that what was at stake here was not just a debate about history, but an argument in favour of Yugoslavia's internal re-organization - if not break-up. For already in 1964 Tudjman believed that, in the event of Yugoslavia's dissolution, an independent Croatia would - like the 1939 Banovina (not to speak of the 1941-5 Ustasha quisling state) - incorporate a significant part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bakaric blocked his application for membership of the Yugoslav (now Croatian) Academy of Arts and Sciences, stopped the Institute's financial subsidy, and set up a Party commission to investigate the `Tudjman case'.


The Croatian leaders were also disconcerted when Tudjman began to raise the issue of Yugoslavia's wartime losses. Under pressure from the War Veterans Association (SUBNOR), the Federal government had in 1964 undertaken a fresh investigation into the number of people who had died in Yugoslavia during World War II; to its great embarrassment, this had revealed that the real number was far smaller than the 1.7 million figure that Yugoslavia had submitted in 1946 to the Allied reparations committee. In particular, the new research disclosed that deaths in Ustasha concentration camps was far smaller than the 700,000 or more that some Serb nationalist sources claimed for the Jasenovac camp alone. Fearing the impact of these revelations on the domestic situation, the Federal government classified the report as `strictly confidential', thus effectively burying it. But Tudjman, as a member of SUBNOR's central secretariat, soon learnt of the report's existence and began to call publicly for its publication.

Tudjman was now becoming a serious embarrassment to the Croatian Party leadership, but he was saved initially by the fall of Alexander Rankovic, Yugoslavia's powerful Interior Minister , whose expulsion from the Party in 1966 inaugurated a major purge of party and state institutions, especially in Serbia. A year later, however, when many prominent Croatian intellectuals and cultural institutions signed a `Declaration regarding the name and status of the Croatian literary language', Bakaric took advantage of the wave of repression unleashed against them to drive Tudjman from both the Institute and the Party. Tudjman continued, however, to participate actively in the cultural organization Matica Hrvatska, where he caused consternation at the end of the 1960s by protesting against the Federal Party's decision to recognize the Bosnian Muslims (now Bosniaks), whom he considered to be Croats, as a distinct nation. Finally, in January 1972, following the large-scale purge of Croatian party and state leaders for alleged nationalism during the `Croatian Spring', he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison (reduced to nine months at Tito's request); and in 1981, a year after Tito's death, was again arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for giving an interview to Swedish TV (though he was released early on grounds of bad health). Separated by his nationalism from most other intellectual or political figures purged after the Croatian Spring, throughout the seventies and eighties Tudjman lived on his army pension in enforced semi-isolation - although he did establish contact in the eighties with other Yugoslav dissidents, including Milovan Djilas and the influential Serb-nationalist novelist Dobrica Cosic, who in June 1992 was to become president of the Serbian-dominated FRY.


At the end of the 1980s, however, as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, Tudjman returned to political life, this time as president of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Formally established on 17 June 1989 at a secret meeting held in a Zagreb suburb, the HDZ quickly became dominated by hard-line nationalists, some of whom belonged to the Ustasha tradition and had returned to Croatia after many years in exile. When Tudjman declared, at the first national convention of the HDZ, that the Ustasha state had in its own way realized the Croatian aspiration to independent statehood, most intellectuals who had initially joined the party promptly withdrew. In November 1989, Tudjman further stated that if Serbia were to expand into Bosnia-Herzegovina, his party would seek to establish `the territorial integrity of the Croat nation in its historic and natural borders': i.e. would seek to partition Bosnia with Belgrade. In the first multi-party elections in April 1990, the HDZ - thanks partly to funds coming from Croats living abroad - emerged as the largest party: although it won just 40% of the popular vote, the electoral system chosen by the outgoing Communists gave it an overwhelming majority in parliament. Franjo Tudjman thus did not just become Croatia's president: the new constitution he was able to enact made him the country's autocratic ruler. As Serbia's aggressive intentions became ever clearer in this final stage of Yugoslavia's existence, Croatia followed Slovenia's example and held a referendum on sovereignty. Armed with an overwhelming vote of popular confidence, it then on 25 June 1991 proclaimed its independence. Unlike Slovenia, however, Croatia under Tudjman had been prepared neither politically nor militarily for what was to follow.

Milosevic and Bosnia

Franjo Tudjman's approach to the problems created by Yugoslavia's dissolution was anchored in his belief that history was about to repeat itself, and that Serbia's attack on Croatia could best be countered by seeking a deal with Belgrade, precisely along the lines of the 1939 Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement - which this time would be accompanied by mutually agreed exchanges of population, leading to an enlarged and nationally homogeneous Croatia. Tudjman knew, however, that this policy had no domestic support and must be pursued in absolute secrecy. Croatia thus entered the war unleashed by Milosevic's Serbia with two quite contradictory aims: the public - and popular - one of defending its territorial integrity and independence, and the secret one of extending its borders into Bosnia, in agreement with Belgrade. In pursuit of this second and for him far more important goal, Tudjman allowed (at times actually encouraged) a Serb rebellion to spread over large parts of Croatia; delayed creating a defence force; refused (despite a prior agreement) to come to Slovenia's aid when the JNA attacked it; and rejected all defence plans submitted to him between December 1990 and August 1991. For good measure, in early August 1991 he sent his senior military adviser into exile for advocating the seizure of JNA garrisons and depots on Croatian territory as the first step towards creating a defence force. Instead of building Croatia's defence capability, Tudjman's strategy was, on the one hand, to negotiate with Milosevic and, on the other, to `internationalize' the war, i.e. subject it to international arbitration. At the same time, in March 1991 (the month when the JNA began arming Bosnian Serbs, and when it had already been arming Croatian Serbs for a good while) Zagreb began discussing the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Belgrade - although Milosevic's military superiority made all such `negotiations' chimerical. The upshot of all this was that in August 1991 Croatia faced outright military defeat - and Tudjman an open revolt among his commanders in Slavonia.

Frightened by the abyss that yawned before him, Tudjman allowed the formation of a government of national unity, which on 8 October declared Croatia an independent country. He also finally allowed experienced career officers to form a general staff, organize the seizure of key JNA garrisons and depots, conduct partial mobilization, and in this way create the Croatian Army. By late autumn 1991 this army was conducting a counter-offensive in both eastern and western Slavonia, while its general staff was drawing up plans for the liberation of all Croatian territory, as well as for dislodging the JNA from crucial areas in northern and western Bosnia. Despite this, however, Croatia's president agreed to a cease-fire, as part of the Vance Plan according to which UN troops would come in to guard areas of the country still under JNA control, while in return Croatia would gain international recognition. Tudjman thus managed to end the war in Croatia in a way that did not prejudice the issue of the country's borders, but at the price of having almost one third of its national territory remain - despite the UN presence - under Belgrade's control.

Tudjman still held nevertheless to his cherished ambition of cutting a general territorial deal with Milosevic at Bosnia's expense. In the autumn of that year, accordingly, he secured a JNA withdrawal from Dalmatia in return for pulling Croatian units out of northern Bosnia; at the same time he built up a para-state under his control in Herzegovina, which in early 1993 was to be the launching-pad for annexing a substantial part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The ensuing Croatian-Bosnian war, however, was won by the Bosnian Army. Tudjman's policies were rescued from disaster only by the United States, which now stepped in to broker the March 1994 Washington Agreement providing for a Croat-Bosniak federation. US strategy from this point on was to build a political and military counter-weight to Milosevic's Serbia and Radovan Karadzic's Republika Srpska in the shape of a Zagreb-Sarajevo axis. The first results came in the spring and summer of 1995, when the Croatian Army retook most occupied areas in Croatia itself (provoking a Serb exodus that Tudjman did little to prevent, and that undoubtedly fitted his mono-ethnic conceptions even if he did not bear primary responsibility for it); and when, following NATO airstrikes, a joint Bosnian and Croatian offensive eliminated Karadzic's forces from much of western Bosnia. The Dayton Agreement of December 1995 ratified a settlement according to which Croatia would regain eastern Slavonia, while Bosnia-Herzegovina would become a single state divided into two entities: Republika Srpska and the Croat-Bosniak Federation.


In his nine years of rule as Croatia's president, Franjo Tudjman, following the precept of `l'Etat c'est moi', accumulated practically all power into his own hands and greatly enriched his family and political supporters. He basically ran the Croatian state in the same way he had the Historical Institute back in the sixties: as a base for personal promotion. A self-obsessed personality invested with messianic delusions, intolerant of all difference and dissent, he reduced parliament to a sounding-board for his own decrees, the state treasury to a source of funds for his personal and party requirements, state television to an empty public relations machine for his political ambitions and narrow cultural provincialism.

Under his auspices, the manner of privatization and the profits made from war produced large-scale corruption, while impoverishing the country as a whole. Harassment of the independent media, subordination of the judiciary, toleration of lawlessness by supporters of the regime, human-rights abuses above all against Serbs who remained in liberated parts of Croatia - all these were characteristic of Tudjman's rule.

His adventures in Bosnia damaged Croatia's strategic position, economic interests, social stability and international reputation. His contempt for democratic elections - shown by the systematic intimidation or buying off of political opponents, as well as by the refusal to hand over control of Zagreb when the opposition won there - minimized the chances for the emergence of a genuinely democratic alternative.

The aberrations associated with his period in office were exacerbated, no doubt, by the aggression to which the country was subjected from the very moment of its proclamation of independence and by the policy of appeasing Belgrade long followed by Western governments. It remains the case, however, that dismantling his legacy remains a precondition for Croatia's democratic development.

Franjo Tudjman, President of the Republic of Croatia, born 14 May 1922, died 10 December 1999. This obituary appeared in The Independent, 13 December 1999.

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