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Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 11:47 GMT
Breaking the silence in Croatia
Croatian soldiers during the war for independence
Ten years on, nationalism remains strong in Croatia

By Misha Glenny

It used to be known as the "silent republic". That was after the former Yugoslav strongman, Marshall Tito, clamped down following the heady days of 1971 known as the Croatian Spring.

Some argue that this was a great and necessary liberalisation against a stagnant Communism dominated by a crusty elite in Belgrade.

Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik, the 'Pearl of the Adriatic', was shelled during the conflict
Others say it released the old demons of Croatian nationalism, so infamous during their fascist reign of World War II.

Some said 1971 was a bit of both, although I suspect I am in the majority in thinking that it was more the former than the latter.

Whatever it was, Tito, who was half-Croat, decided he did not like it. And so he reintroduced a nasty, repressive regime in Croatia based on the power of Udba, Yugoslavia's despised secret police.

And Croatia remained silent until 1990. Then for nine months from June 1991, it became the noisiest republic in Europe as howitzers, tanks, jet fighters, mines, AK-47s, pistols and shotguns blasted their way around the country, triggering a spiral of massacre and counter massacre of Croats and Serbs.

They razed the beautiful Danube town of Vukovar to the ground, and Yugoslav military personnel shelled Dubrovnik - the Pearl of the Adriatic.

Since then Croatia has largely sunk back into silence. The West excoriated Slobodan Milosevic's and Serbia's role in supporting the monstrous Serb Army in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Dark past

But it was the same West that remained largely silent as President Franjo Tudjman - Croatia's nationalist leader who won the war against Serbs - really did invoke the demons of Croatia's fascist past, chiefly at the expense of Bosnia's blighted Muslim population, the Bosniaks.


The minute there was any talk of prosecuting war criminals, the government found itself frozen like a rabbit in the terrifying beam of nationalist demonstrators

After Tudjman's death, a reformist government finally assumed power in place of his HDZ early last year, and the office of president was bestowed upon his one-time collaborator, Stipe Mesic.

Croats and diplomats waited eagerly to see if the new government would finally face up to what Tudjman's regime had perpetrated in the name of Croats and Croatia.

And there was, well, silence. True to form, Croatia was again the Silent Republic.

To be sure, the government of Prime Minister Ivica Racan walked the European walk and talked the European talk.

But it was too frightened to dismantle the corrupt structures of the HDZ, and the minute there was any talk of delivering or prosecuting war criminals, the government found itself frozen like a rabbit in the terrifying beam of nationalist demonstrators who threatened chaos.

Independence

On Tuesday, Croatia celebrated the 10th anniversary of the European Union's recognition of its independence from Yugoslavia. It was a welcome diversion from the tedious little scandals currently plaguing political life and fuelling most of the gossip in Zagreb's charming cobbled old town.

Bosnian Muslim women mourn their dead
The Bosnian war claimed the lives of around 250,000 people
In the City Café on the capital's main Jelacic Square, I heard a group of elderly, rather elegantly attired men, debating Milan Bandic, Zagreb's mayor.

"It's not the fact that he was drunk while driving," said one, clearly with a developed libertarian soul. "We've all sat behind the wheel after one too many now and then." "No," broke in a second, "it's the fact he did a runner from the police."

Such is the level of political discourse at the moment - over the festive season, Mr Bandic had indeed done a runner after causing an accident while over the limit.

It is a bizarre affair which will not result in the mayor's resignation because he is such a wheeler-dealer that all political parties - both his own ruling Social Democrats and the opposition HDZ - want Bandic to stay where he is although for very different reasons.

Speaking out

In this tawdry atmosphere nobody was expecting any fireworks in the Sabor, Croatia's parliament, on Tuesday. These anniversary events are almost made for the mouthing of platitudes - and Croatia's politicians were true to form.

President Mesic
President Mesic spoke out after almost 10 years of silence
But then President Mesic rose. And after 10 years of silence, Croatia's head of state spoke out.

"Some might say that a day of great celebration is not the right day to voice such reflections. But I say everyday, even a day of celebration, is the right day to speak the truth."

And there were some powerful truths said. For the first time ever, a senior Croat representative admitted that it was not only Slobodan Milosevic who provoked the Serb minority in Croatia to rebel, but that the Croatian leadership had goaded this minority too.

Believe you me, that is explosive stuff in Croatia.

He denounced Tudjman's government for harbouring territorial aspirations in Bosnia-Hercegovina and derided the persistent violations of democratic rules in the country.

These events may have gone largely unnoticed in the West but they are momentous.

Croatia has taken an important step on its path to maturing thanks to its president. Perhaps, it is now time to dispense with that eerie epithet "Silent".

See also:

24 Apr 01 | Europe
EU calls for new Yugoslavia
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Croatia
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