Father of His Country? Franjo Tudjman and the Creation of Contemporary Croatia
October 13, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with James Sadkovich, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Public Policy Scholar James Sadkovich devoted his presentation to a wide-ranging analysis of the significance of the first president of post-Yugoslav Croatia, Franjo Tudjman. Sadkovich's analysis is still evolving, as is his forthcoming biography of the former president, which he is currently researching and writing at the Wilson Center.

Sadkovich began by addressing the issue evoked in the title of his talk and declared that Tudjman is undoubtedly the father of his country, emphasizing that without Tudjman, there very likely would not be an independent Croatia today. This is not to say that Tudjman ought to be beatified, since it is clear that as Croatia's leader he made many mistakes and there are obvious problems with the path he chose for creating a Croatian state. Sadkovich made a particular effort to differentiate the life and work of Tudjman from his contemporary, Slobodan Milosevic, the post-Yugoslav leader of Serbia, with whom he is often paired. According to Sadkovich this is a highly inaccurate linkage: Tudjman differed in varied respects from Milosevic, not only in the degree of real and alleged war crimes for which he is responsible, but also in their personalities and methods of operation. Sadkovich argued that while Milosevic was much more a politician, Tudjman was a theoretician and philosopher.

Sadkovich emphasized that the central aspect of Tudjman's political career in Croatia was his strong advocacy of Croatian nationalism. But Sadkovich stressed that Tudjman's nationalism did not come from the aggressive, World War II fascism of the Nazi-allied regime of the Ustasha, led by Ante Pavelic. Rather, Tudjman's more temperate nationalism stemmed from the moderate and respectable tradition of rural peasant nationalism, embodied in the Peasant Party of the early 20th century, led by Stijepan Radic and the 19th century political philosopher Ante Starcevic. Also influential for Tudjman was the early tradition of the Croatian left, led by Communist-era leader Josip Broz Tito, and even Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson.

In Sadkovich's view, Tudjman's nationalism and activism got its start in the Tito era, during which he was a general with the rank of Commissar in the 1950s Yugoslav army. Tudjman's goal was a free Croatia within the context of a socialist Yugoslavia. He continued to have this primary goal even into early 1990, prior to the break up of Yugoslavia. Up to the last, Sadkovich asserted, Tudjman was striving for and could have lived with a loose confederation of post-Communist "Yugoslav" republics, but this was rendered impossible by the insistence of the Milosevic Serbs that a unitary state should be preserved. In this sense, Sadkovich believes that Tudjman cannot be blamed for the outbreak of the war between Croatia and the Serbian-led rump-Yugoslavia, which was precipitated in June 1991 following Croatia's declaration of independence. The war was an inevitable step in the process, Sadkovich argued, which was neither provoked by Tudjman nor his Croatian nationalism.

Tudjman and the movement he founded, the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), emphasized nationalism as its central tenet. Tudjman emphasized the themes of Croatian nationalism and the formation of a Croatian state throughout his rise to power in the 1980s, primarily as an effort to lift the war guilt of the fascist period in Croatia during World War II. Tudjman and the CDU resurrected World War II-era flags, currency and personalities to help with the process of state formation, but these steps should not be seen as efforts to rehabilitate the fascist-era state of Croatia or its leadership.

Professor Sadkovich by no means intends to gloss over the less savory aspects of Tudjman's activities. He makes no excuses for Tudjman's actions in Bosnia during the war from 1992 through 1996, when Croatia gave direct assistance to Bosnian Croats who participated in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims until 1994, when through U.S. and European intervention, the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia were forced into a Bosnian-Croat Federation.