Croatia at the crossroads
By Jeffrey T. Kuhner
Croatia has given Europe´s political establishment a massive cardiac arrest. The Continent´s leftists are in shock following the country´s recent national elections. Ivo Sanader, the leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the main conservative opposition party, soundly defeated Prime Minister Ivica Racan´s socialist government.
The HDZ campaigned aggressively, highlighting Mr. Racan´s inability to improve the country´s sluggish economy. The HDZ´s electoral triumph was made even more impressive by the fact the European Union and many in the Western liberal press openly supported Mr. Racan´s leftist coalition.
Yet average Croatian voters rejected the outside meddling for one simple reason: They understood Mr. Racan´s economic policies had failed. Under his leadership, unemployment remained high at 18 percent, while the public debt soared.
Rather than scoring a "brilliant victory," as Mr. Sanader claimed on Election Night, the HDZ benefited significantly from widespread voter frustration with Mr. Racan´s stagnant regime. Nevertheless, Mr. Sanader has been given a historic opportunity to transform both his party´s image in the West and to forge Croatia into a modern, fully functional European nation-state.
The HDZ was denounced in the West during much of the 1990s for the authoritarian policies of its founder, the late President Franjo Tudjman. The Croatian strongman also was criticized for the widespread corruption that characterized his rule until his death in 1999. But for all his flaws, Tudjman was a visionary and first-rank statesman, who secured Croatia´s national independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
Mr. Sanader, however, lacks Tudjman´s popular charisma and ideological core convictions. Rather, the HDZ leader is a pragmatic technocrat, who insists he now heads a revamped, pro-European party committed to Western-style conservatism. The centerpiece of his campaign was a Bush-style tax cut and promotion of Croatia´s entry into the European Union by 2007.
But the true test of Mr. Sanader´s conservatism will come not in his words, but in his actions. Since its independence in 1991, Croatia has failed to confront its communist past. Croatia´s economic life remains rife with Titoist-style bribery and cronyism.
Hence, if Mr. Sanader is serious about leading a conservative revolution in the Balkans, he must start an immediate, sweeping decommunization. The massive public bureaucracy, dominated by former apparatchiks who oppose economic reform, must be dismantled. A legal framework is needed to protect private property rights and the rule of law, and encourage entrepreneurship and creation of investment capital.
Most importantly, the HDZ leader must vigorously campaign against corruption. He can start by having the Croatian parliament pass a law making it a criminal offense for public officials to engage in bribery, kickbacks or have cronies and family members receive government contracts practices common not only in Croatia but throughout the region.
Yet perhaps the greatest obstacle Mr. Sanader faces is the issue of cooperation with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands. Brussels has made it clear Zagreb´s entry into the EU hinges upon unconditional cooperation with The Hague tribunal, especially regarding the court´s chief request to arrest and extradite Gen. Ante Gotovina, who has been in hiding since his 2001 indictment. Mr. Sanader has pledged full cooperation with the tribunal.
But any decision to hand over Gen. Gotovina would spell the end of his ruling center-right coalition. Gen. Gotovina is rightly viewed as a hero by most Croats for his role in leading a 1995 military operation that ended the Croat-Serb war. Extradition of the general would spark mass protests and civil unrest.
Moreover, the Gotovina indictment has been severely criticized by The Hague tribunal experts and senior Bush administration officials. Gen. Gotovina is not charged with ordering or committing atrocities, but for having "command responsibility" over purported massacres of 150 civilians.
The Gotovina indictment is an attempt by European leftists to impose the dangerous precedent of "command responsibility" in international military law. Earlier this year, a Belgian court sought to indict Gen. Tommy Franks for "command responsibility" over supposed atrocities of U.S. forces against civilians during the Iraq war. The State Department got Brussels to withdraw the complaint.
But it is now clear the International Criminal Court views The Hague tribunal´s use of the principle of command responsibility as a basis for possible future indictments against U.S. military leaders. A senior administration official confessed that "the indictments issued by The Hague tribunal based on the theory of command responsibility risks establishing the principle in international law."
Mr. Sanader should insist Washington step up to the plate and demand the Gotovina indictment be amended or, preferably, dropped. He needs to make the case to the Bush administration that, just as the United States correctly opposes the ICC for fear of politically motivated indictments, Zagreb has similar concerns about the politicized prosecution against Gen. Gotovina. The principle of command responsibility threatens not only Croatia´s national interests, but those of America as well.
The HDZ leader should demand a straight swap: Zagreb will support signing a treaty to exempt Americans from prosecution by the ICC in exchange for U.S. pressure on The Hague to withdraw the Gotovina indictment.
The challenges facing Mr. Sanader are immense. Time will tell if he is up to the task.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is assistant national editor at The Washington Times.