Franjo Tuđman

Nationalist leader and Croatia's first president when the country became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991. For his supporters, Tuđman achieved the centuries-old dream of a Croatian state and defended the nation against the threat of Serbian invasion. The depth of his nationalism, however, gave rise to criticism inside and outside Croatia, and his popularity finally diminished amid corruption scandals.

Tuđman was born in 1922 in the village of Veliko Trgovišće, in the Zagorje region of northern Croatia; alongside Josip Broz Tito, the leader of Communist Yugoslavia, he would compete for the title of the Zagorje's most famous son. Only nineteen years old when World War II reached Yugoslavia in 1941, he nonetheless joined the Partisan guerrilla army commanded by Tito, who came to power by virtue of the Partisans' victories.

Croatian Spring

Tuđman was raised to the rank of general before leaving the Yugoslavian army, the JNA, in 1961, ostensibly annoyed with the Serbian elitism he found within the officer corps. While there does appear to have been a larger Serb and Montenegrin contingent in the JNA than demography alone would have suggested, this is likely to have been a product of the Partisans' recruitment, during World War II, of Serbs who did not wish to fight with the competing resistance movement, the Chetniks, associated with Serb nationalism.

Instead, Tuđman took up a career as a historian, and obtained a national profile during the late 1960s when Croatian nationalism first revived in Yugoslavia, a movement remembered as the 'Croatian Spring'. The new leaders of the Croatian Communist Party, Savka Dabčević-Kučar and Miko Tripalo, began to complain that Croatia had to pay too much of the foreign currency, her earnings from tourism, to federal government.

After running up against centralist hardliners, they increasingly appealed to a mass movement in which nationalists, especially the cultural society Matica Hrvatska, joined with enthusiasm now that there was more freedom to express Croatian culture. The traditional Croatian flag, bearing the red and white chequerboard emblem known as the šahovnica, was brought out again, and interest was revived in the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party in the 1920s, the iconic Stjepan Radić.

Tuđman became an editor of the Matica's new weekly, Hrvatski Tjednik, which highlighted Croatia's economic exploitation and argued that Croatia should be defined as the Croats' national state, and not as a geographic expression.

Once Tito had decided, at the end of 1971, that the nationalist movement had grown strong enough to threaten Yugoslavia as a federation, the Matica was broken up, its political supporters sacked, and Tuđman sentenced to two years in prison. He received another, three-year sentence, for talking to foreign journalists, in 1981.

The Herzegovina Lobby

Returning to his historical career, Tuđman carved out a niche in the study of Jasenovac, the chief concentration camp operated by the Ustaše, the fascist party who had ruled Croatia during World War II. In his book Horrors of War, he proposed a strikingly small figure for the deaths of Serbs, Jews and Roma there: the numbers had indeed been inflated by the Communists, but not to the extent Tuđman suggested.

Such revisionism provided him with credibility in the eyes of the rich, old émigrés whom he approached during the 1980s to fund the nationalist party he envisaged, but some Western observers considered that his work drew dangerously close to Holocaust denial. Tuđman, however, was by no means the only historian to tackle the sensitive controversy of Yugoslavia's war dead.

Tuđman's party, the HDZ - the Croatian Democratic Union - was founded in June 1989. At the same time, Slobodan Milošević was consolidating his popularity in Serbia by taking advantage of the aggressive Serbian nationalism of the late 1980s: eleven days after the HDZ congress, Milošević had commemorated the 600th anniversary of the Serb national symbol par excellence, the Battle of Kosovo, at a raucous rally.

Approaching Croatia's first multiparty elections in 1990, Tuđman outmanoeuvred former Communists by playing up the national question and even referring, on occasion, to one of Yugoslavia's great taboos, the NDH - the Ustaša state of Ante Pavelić.

Just as controversially, Tuđman declared to an election rally in March that he was glad his wife Ankica was 'neither a Jew nor a Serb'. It was perhaps no coincidence that Tuđman's major source of funding for the HDZ had been a group of émigrés resident in Canada and born in Herzegovina, who believed that their home region belonged with Croatia rather than Bosnia.

The predominant man among them, Gojko Šušak, became Tuđman's defence minister during the war, and throughout his premiership, Tuđman took his reliance on the so-called 'Herzegovina lobby' into account; some of the lobby would become linked to the damaging privatisation scandals that surfaced later in the Tuđman era.

Lijepa Naša Domovina

The HDZ came out of the elections with 40% of the vote, giving Tuđman victory but not the 70-90% he had predicted. Croatian Serb leaders, also influenced by events in Serbia, interpreted his rising political profile as an Ustaše revival, and a Croatian Serb party was founded in Knin in the spring of 1990.

That August, full-scale rebellion broke out in Knin when the Serbs declared a breakaway Republic of the Krajina, referring to the Habsburgs' old Military Frontier to which Knin, in fact, had never belonged. War crimes indictments subsequently laid against Serbian figures such as Milošević carry the accusation that the Knin revolt was but one part of a concerted strategy of ethnic cleansing.

With his keen eye for symbolism, Tuđman restored the statue of the nineteenth-century Croatian general Josip Jelačić to the centre of Jelacic Square in Zagreb, from where it had been removed by the Communists in 1947. He established a separate Croatian airline and news agency, and declared Croatia the homeland of the Croat nation, the Lijepa naša domovina of the formerly suppressed national anthem.

Unable to call upon the military resources Croatia had contributed to the JNA, which was in alliance with Milošević, Tuđman turned the Croatian police force into paramilitary units, the subject of several ultimatums from the federal army, and relied upon weapons obtained from Hungary.

In March 1991, the leader of the Krajina Serbs, Milan Babić, began to foment incidents of ethnic tension in Slavonia, the eastern part of Croatia which directly bordered Serbia. Public opinion in Croatia was outraged after an ambush by Serb paramilitaries in the Slavonian village of Borovo Selo, who apparently felt provoked by local HDZ youths, left 12 Croatian policemen dead on May 2, 1991, inflaming Croatian media against the Serbs. On television in Belgrade, the extremist Serb nationalist Vojislav Šešelj boasted of taking part in the attack.

Blue Helmets

Tuđman's vehement statements that he would not give up any Croatian territory, either to the Krajina Serbs or to the JNA which had intervened in the conflict in the name of Yugoslavia, had not amounted to a declaration of war; instead, his strategy was to wait for the legitimacy conferred by international recognition and to avoid all-out war unless it was forced upon him.

The policy exasperated nationalists to the right, including Dobroslav Paraga whom Tuđman would have imprisoned by the end of the year. He successfully justified himself to a heated Croatian Parliament session before increased JNA activity gave Tuđman no alternative but to declare independence, in conjunction with neighbouring Slovenia, and fight.

On August 26, 1991, the energetic general Ratko Mladić, who was to become notorious during the war in Bosnia, flattened Kijevo, near Knin, and the protracted siege of Vukovar began.

The city was to become one of the symbolic towns of the four-year conflict, as did the historic Adriatic port of Dubrovnik, the target of Montenegrin forces. Vukovar fell in November 1991, but the international attention being paid to the war in Croatia prompted United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed in the same month.

A third of Croatian territory remained under Serbian occupation, and many Croats had been expelled from the occupied areas. However, Tuđman and his chief of staff Antun Tus had managed to construct a Croatian army, often by blockading JNA garrisons until they surrendered their equipment, at the same time as keeping up a diplomatic campaign that won Croatia the recognition Tuđman coveted in 1992.

The Back of a Napkin

Croatian troops, who had by then received American training, retook Slavonia and the Krajina in 1995, in military operations known as Flash and Storm. Just as the Serb rebels had expelled Croats, the liberating forces made their presence known by expelling Serbs, and a number of indictments to the Hague Tribunal have since been served on Croatian commanders.

Tuđman had also intervened in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, supplying the Bosnian Croat army known as the HVO, which fought the Bosnian Muslims in 1993. He believed that Bosnia had always been an artificial creation, and imagined that it should be partitioned between his own country and Serbia. In 1994, the American negotiator Charles Redman convinced Tuđman to sanction the Muslim and Croat alliance, offering the carrot of US aid for Flash and Storm.

However, Tuđman had once nurtured different plans for Bosnia: the British politician Paddy Ashdown recalled in his diaries that, at a diplomatic dinner in 1995, a tired and emotional President Tuđman, sitting next to him, took out a napkin and sketched the borders of the partition.

More recently, it has been alleged that a partition deal was agreed between Tuđman and Milošević when they met each other in 1991 at a mysterious meeting in Tito's old hunting lodge at Karađorđevo.

After Tuđman's death, secret services cleaning out the presidential palace discovered a hotline on Tuđman's desk that connected him directly to Milošević's office. It is possible that the common purpose said to have existed between the two leaders might have seen Tuđman investigated, as many of his subordinates and counterparts have also been, by the Hague's prosecutors if he had not died before proceedings could begin.

Tuđman and The Hague

Tuđman's post-war presidency, to which he was re-elected in 1997, brought him into frequent conflict with the international community, since he refused to extradite indictees to The Hague even under the threat of economic sanctions. Tuđman's stance that war crimes could not have been committed by the Croatian army because they were fighting a defensive war risked, at times, international isolation.

Tuđman's antipathy to The Hague even extended to certain investigations of Serbs rather than Croats, and he refused to release evidence relating to the JNA's shelling of Zadar, suggesting a deep-seated denial of the legitimacy of the entire tribunal over and above any desire to protect Croatian soldiers.

His regime further irritated the UN by continuing to fund Bosnian Croats, including those who did not recognise the Bosnian state established by the Dayton Accords Tuđman had himself signed.

In Croatia, his critics on the left attacked the style of his nationalism, and complained that he was willing to rehabilitate symbols from the fascist regime of the 1940s, the Independent State of Croatia, including reviving the kuna as Croatia's currency and naming streets after the Ustaša ideologue Mile Budak. The kuna, however, had existed long before the NDH, and other symbols, such as the royal braid, dated back to Croatia's eleventh-century kings.

Tuđman acknowledged that the NDH had been, as he put it, 'a fascist crime', but also a realisation of Croatian statehood, and on these grounds alone deserved remembrance, since Croatian sovereignty was the state's highest value. Figures in Croatian history were to be judged on whether they had been državnotvorni, on what contribution they had made to obtaining or preserving that sovereignty.

His nationalism was also characterised by its focus on a parade of internal and external enemies. With no Serb invaders to rally the nation against, Tuđman inveighed against a strange coalition of Communists, atheists, homosexuals and the politicians of Istria who wanted their region to be autonomous.

When support ebbed away from Tuđman in his last years, public disaffection centred on the corruption on which his friends and family had grown rich, capitalising on post-Communist privatisations, while one in 10 of Croatia's population were unemployed.

Tuđman's penchant for white military uniforms, arrays of medals and spanking new aeroplanes reminded many of that other Zagorje boy, Josip Broz Tito, whose summer retreat on the Brioni islands Tuđman took over.

Death of a President

Tuđman had been diagnosed with cancer in 1996, and died on December 13, 1999, receiving a state funeral entirely in keeping with the intense Catholicism he had displayed, as an individual and a leader, in life.

Three weeks later, his HDZ lost heavily in already scheduled parliamentary elections, falling to a six-party bloc from the centre-left. The party split into several factions, although has since largely regrouped in an attempt to make the most of the new government's handling of the economy and continuing controversies over indictments of leading generals.

Presidential elections on January 24, 2000 completed the rout of the HDZ: Tuđman's successor was the social democrat Stipe Mesić, who had in fact been the last president of former Yugoslavia. Mesić promptly signalled quick co-operation with The Hague, although in practice his good intentions frequently became entangled with political realities. Furthermore, Mesić indicated it was high time for the Bosnian Croats to look after themselves.

Tuđman's son Miroslav, who had a job in the state security service during his father's lifetime, subsequently acquired a following among a section of the HDZ, and was even championed by one of the indicted generals, Ante Gotovina, but has not emerged as a political leader in his own right.

Read more:
Marcus Tanner, Croatia
Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia
and Omnidirectional Halo reminds me of Thank you.