Father of His Country? Franjo Tudjman and the Creation of Contemporary Croatia
James J. Sadkovich is a WWICS Public Policy Scholar. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on October 13, 2004. This is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 304.
Whether or not Franjo Tudjman was the father of his country, there can be no denying that he played a pivotal role in the creation of contemporary Croatia. While it can be argued that someone else may have been better able to lead the Croatian people through the wastelands of war, occupation and diplomacy during the early 1990s, it was Tudjman who actually did so. If his Croatia was not the peasant republic envisioned by Stjepan Radic or the Croatian state imagined by Ante Starcevic, it was a viable democratic state with a powerful military, a skilled diplomatic corps and citizens who both fought for its survival and criticized its policies.
Whether or not Tudjman was the father of contemporary Croatia, he was certainly the child of Yugoslavia. Born four years after the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, he died eight years after Yugoslavia's dissolution. Like many Croatians of his generation, he joined the Partisans to fight fascism and he served in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). An ardent nationalist, he wrote history from a Croatian perspective. But he was also an ardent communist and a prominent member of the progressive reform movement in Croatia in the 1960s. Like many Croatians, he paid the price for believing in Tito. And, like most dissidents, he was kept out of public life well into the 1980s.
Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic have repeatedly been paired as Balkan dictators, but the two men were as different as bourgeois nationalism and bureaucratic socialism. When asked about Milosevic, Tudjman responded that the Serbian leader was an imperialist, and that he was defending Croatia from him. He could as easily have answered that he was a dissident intellectual fascinated by political power, while Milosevic was a technocrat who had made his career in the League of Communists and state-run businesses. The two men belonged to different generations (Tudjman was born in 1922, Milosevic in 1941) and, with the exception that both lost their parents in tragic circumstances, the events that shaped their beliefs and values were as different as those which shaped Martin Luther and John Calvin. Tudjman fought the German occupation and Ante Pavelic's Independent State of Croatia (NDH); Milosevic grew up in Tito's Yugoslavia under a communist regime that enforced brotherhood and unity. Tudjman believed in the power of communism, and then of nationalism, to transform Yugoslavia. Milosevic made a career in the Serbian communist party. Tudjman was an intellectual and a theorist, while Milosevic was a technocrat and a pragmatist. Tudjman wrote books and gathered honors while Milosevic made money and amassed power.
Although his father was an active member of the Croatian Peasant Party, Tudjman joined the communists. During the war he served as a political commissar with the Partisans and his younger brother was killed by the Ustasha. Tudjman stayed in the Army after the war and moved to Belgrade, where he studied military history. His first book, War against War, was an ambitious study of partisan warfare that reflected the theories of national liberation, which dominated the 1950s. The book brought Tudjman both accolades and criticism for his depiction of the Partisan movement in Croatia as primarily Croatian. Following a bitter exchange with the army's historical office, he moved to Zagreb to head the new Institute for the History of the Workers' Movement.
Tudjman's return to Croatia coincided with an intellectual revival there. He joined Miroslav Krleza's intellectual circle, which included Ivan Sibl, Veceslav Holjevac and Ivan Rukavina—all ex-Partisans from the Zagorje—and Vaso Bogdanov, the head of the University of Zagreb's History Department. Tudjman recruited a team of historians who made the institute the focal point for the revision of Yugoslavia's history. He also published articles, delivered papers and lectured at the University of Zagreb. With the support of Krleza and Bogdanov, he obtained a PhD from the University of Zadar and applied for membership to the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences. But he also had to rebut charges of plagiarism from Ljubo Boban, was forced to drop his application to the Academy, and was increasingly under attack for the Croatian orientation of the institute. In 1967, after signing a declaration which asserted that Croatian was a distinct literary language, he was forced to resign his posts in the communist party and give up his positions at the university and the institute.
Tudjman spent the next 23 years as a dissident. During that time, he was jailed twice for publicly criticizing the regime. He continued to write, including a study of nationalism published in the US in 1981, but his writings only confirmed the regime's opinion that he was a dangerous nationalist. After he challenged official figures on the number of war dead, he was tarred as an apologist for the Ustasha regime.
In 1989, Tudjman helped to create the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a coalition of dissidents. Tudjman saw the HDZ as a "synthesis of Croatian politics" and believed it would play a "positive role" in creating a new "Yugoslav synthesis." With a collective leadership that included Stipe Mesic and Josip Manolic, the HDZ presented itself as a centrist party, like Slovenia's DEMOS. Attacked as a nationalist, Tudjman insisted that he was neither a Milosevic nor a Le Pen. Rather, he espoused a combative pluralism. "The essence of democracy," he said in 1990, "exists in political diversity, and that diversity presupposes political clashes." But if theoretically a democrat, Tudjman believed that elites, not masses, made history, and he seemed unable to make the transition from communist dissident to democratic politician. He remained a formal, often dogmatic, Eastern Bloc intellectual.
Yet, as Ivo Banac notes, while a more charming and democratic Tudjman might have improved Croatia's image abroad, he could not have accommodated Serbian nationalists intent on creating a Greater Serbia at home. After being elected President in 1991, he had to contend with espionage, rebellion, war and occupation. In 1993, his party began to splinter under the weight of policy in Bosnia, and Tudjman found himself increasingly isolated. By 1996, with no war to distract people, attention focused on his shortcomings, in particular his heavy-handed treatment of the media, the corruption of HDZ and government officials, the trials of Croatians at The Hague and international pressure to reintegrate Croatia's Serbian population.
An intellectual who sought to shape reality to conform to his vision of it, Tudjman tended to lecture and to give orders. He had difficulty accepting criticism or admitting error. Yet Croatian elections, if not always fair, were free, and if Tudjman mimicked Tito in his more autocratic moments and De Gaulle in his more grandiose, he never went as far as Cromwell or Primo de Rivera. But he was a nationalist. He believed that only nation states are authentic political formations, and he championed the right of self-determination of peoples. He considered supranational ideologies like Yugoslavism, Soviet communism, American globalism and Roman Catholicism to be "big ideas" that the powerful used to subjugate the weak.
Tudjman believed that a dominant nationality imposes its values, institutions, language and history on every state, and that because only one constituent nation of a multinational state is dominant, such states are both repressive and prone to collapse. These beliefs suggest that his support for a confederal reorganization of Yugoslavia was sincere. If a blueprint for dissolution, as Robert Hayden argues, confederation was an old idea for Tudjman, who saw Croatia as a Central European state and confederation as the first step to joining the European Community. In effect, to reorganize Yugoslavia was to escape the Balkans and to rejoin Europe.
Tudjman's nationalism was essentially liberal, derived not from the Frankist Party of Pure Rights or the Ustasha, but from four complementary sources—the liberal writings of Ante Starcevic, whose concept of state rights asserted the continuity of Croatian state institutions; Stjepan Radic's populist vision of a Croatian peasant republic; Vladimir Lenin's use of self-determination to subvert imperial states; and Tito's creation of a federal Yugoslavia within a non-aligned organization of small states as an alternative to the bipolar world of superpowers. Tudjman's view of the world was also influenced by the writers Miroslav Krleza, August Cesarec and Augustin Ujevic; the sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic; the economist Rudolf Bicanic; and a variety of Croatian politicians, from Fran Supilo and Ante Trumbic, to Milan Sufflay and Andrija Hebrang.
Tudjman's nationalism included a desire to resuscitate old symbols for the new Croatian state. Because the Ustasha had done so in 1941, it was easy to accuse him of refurbishing the NDH. In other instances, he seems to have insisted on certain symbols, despite the controversy, such as when Croatia introduced a coin whose name had been used by both medieval Croatia and the NDH, or when a street in Zagreb was named after Mile Budak, an important Croatian writer but also a leader of the Ustasha. Croatia's most powerful—and divisive—symbols were the Ustasha and the Partisans. Tudjman sought to denature and appropriate both by condemning the crimes of the Ustasha and stressing the Croatian nature of the Partisans; presenting both as epiphenomena of a particular era in European history; and inviting the descents of both to build a common Croatian state. But his position generated misunderstanding, as his efforts to integrate events of the 1940s into Croatian history and transcend the past were interpreted as insensitive at best, neo-fascist at worst.
Tudjman looked to another powerful symbol, the Croatian Banovina of 1939, as a model to normalize Croatian-Serbian relations, which he saw as the key to stabilizing Croatia and the region. The Banovina had effectively divided Bosnia-Herzegovina between Serbia and Croatia, and during a meeting at Karadordevo in March 1991, he and Milosevic apparently discussed a similar partition as a way to defuse tensions between Serbs and Croats. Stipe Mesic recalls that Tudjman returned from the meeting believing he had avoided war, and it is likely that the Croatian leader thought that by agreeing to satisfy Serbian demands in Bosnia, he could realize a Croatian state with defensible borders. He appears to have believed that the international community would accept a peaceful redrawing of borders, a belief partially confirmed by subsequent peace plans put forward by international mediators. But Alija Izetbegovic, rejected any division of Bosnia. Even so, in June 1991, Tudjman told HDZ leaders that they had "escaped the worst."
In fact, the international community had tacitly encouraged Belgrade to use force to bring Slovenia and Croatia to heel. But like many Croats, Tudjman believed that the world community would intervene, as they had in Kuwait, to prevent a violent redrawing of Yugoslavia's internal borders. He continued to put his faith in negotiations and blocked efforts by his Defense Minister, Martin Spegelj, to disarm the Army, in order to avoid antagonizing it and being cast in the role of aggressor. In August 1991 he followed advice from the French and Americans to make concessions to Croatia's Serbs, and by November he lifted the siege of JNA barracks at the urging of the American ambassador. But Tudjman also wrote a letter to Western leaders, chiding them for encouraging aggression by their inaction, and he built up Croatia's armed forces.
Even so, Croatia lacked the military means to defend itself in 1991, so it is possible that if Croatian forces were to hold Sisak, Dubrovnik, Karlovac, and other areas, they could not hold Vukovar. But many believe Tudjman let the city fall to create another powerful symbol, and that he brokered the Serbian occupation of Posavina. It is also possible that Tudjman, who was a political general, was more comfortable with diplomacy and international organizations than military strategy. During Croatia's war, he urged the creation of a court to try war crimes and the deployment of UN troops to Croatia. Only once it was clear that the UN could not enforce the Vance Plan did Tudjman apply force—in 1993 at Maslenica and two years later in Western Slavonija and the Krajina. But he was content to use diplomacy to regain Eastern Slavonija, and he halted his forces at Banja Luka in 1995.
Tudjman invoked Starcevic's concept of Croatia as a historic state to argue that while its Serbian minority had the same civil rights as other citizens, they did not have the right to secede. But he considered Bosnia an imperial creation with three distinct constituent peoples, none of whom could lay claim to a Bosnian state, and as early as 1990 he suggested a referendum, which would have partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina by allowing its peoples to choose where they wanted to live. For geopolitical reasons, Tudjman would not allow Bosnia to remain in a rump Yugoslavia, but he warned that Croatia would demand its "historical and natural" borders only if Bosnia disintegrated as a result of Serbian actions. He discussed political countermeasures with Bosnian Croat leaders in June 1991, but he did not follow the Serbian example of creating autonomous communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina until December—after Izetbegovic had sent representatives to talk with Serbian leaders in Belgrade and Pale, and after Serbian forces had occupied a quarter of Croatia and attacked Croatians in Bosnia.
Tudjman approved military intervention in Bosnia in response to Serbian attacks on Croatia from Bosnian territory. He could not convince Ejup Ganic to reword the referendum of early 1992 to define Bosnia as a state of three "constituent nations," but Tudjman encouraged Bosnia's Croats to vote for a Bosnian state in early 1992, Croatian forces fought as part of the Bosnian army, and in July, Tudjman and Izetbegovic signed an accord on military cooperation. But Croatian-Muslim relations were increasingly strained as refugees poured into Croatia and Croatian areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a heavy burden for Croatia, which took in more than two hundred thousand Bosnian refugees, and a critical problem for Croatian areas in Bosnia, where the influx of Muslim refugees changed the demographic balance.
Tensions generated by the movement of refugees and pressure by the war itself triggered an 11-month war between Croats and Muslims, which ended in March 1994 with the creation of the Muslim-Croat Federation. With his borders secure, Tudjman pressed for the return of Serbian-occupied areas in Croatia. When negotiations stalled in the summer of 1995, he opted for military action. By September, Croatian forces in Bosnia and Croatia had occupied areas lost to the JNA in 1991 and relieved the siege of the Muslim safe area of Bihac.
Tudjman's support of Croatian areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina made it easier for him than for Izetbegovic to accept the peace plans put forward by Jose Cutilheiro, Cyrus Vance, David Owen, and Thorvald Stoltenberg—all of which acknowledged the concept of constituent peoples and effectively partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina. But if Tudjman hoped to add Croatian areas in Bosnia to his new state, it is unlikely that he conspired with Milosevic to do so, and it is not clear to what extent his intervention in Bosnia was meant to protect the Croatian state and Bosnian Croatians, and to what extent it was an effort to appropriate Western Herzegovina and Central Bosnia. Charles Shrader argues that the fighting in Central Bosnia was provoked by Muslim efforts to control Croatian areas, and the massacres in the villages of Ahmici and Stupni Do appear to have been the result of a bitterly fought war, not of calculated policy. In reality, Tudjman tailored his actions to the policies of the international community and the actions of Serbian and Muslim forces. He rarely took the initiative.
Throughout the conflict, Tudjman sought simultaneously to protect Croatians in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to isolate Serbian rebels in Croatia. But this policy isolated Tudjman, split his party and tarnished Croatia's image. He complained bitterly that Croatia had become the scapegoat for an international community trying to rebuild a "Yugo-association," and he stressed Croatia's support of Bosnia and its acceptance of 250,000 Bosnian refugees. But his repeated suggestions to end the war by partitioning Bosnia-Herzegovina made his support for its Croats appear to be calculated aggression. He may have been correct that the West feared an Islamic state in Europe, that the war between Muslims and Croats was borne of mutual fears, and that the Muslim-dominated Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the first to attack in Central Bosnia. But he had lost the world's sympathy and the support of both the Catholic Church and members of his own party at home. When he declared in 1993 that Croatia would continue to pursue a realistic policy and defend its "strategic state interests," which included helping Bosnia, cooperating with the international community, and protecting the Croatians there, he had already lost the public relations war, and all he could do was to find a graceful way of ending the fiasco in Bosnia.
He managed to do this with the 1994 Washington Accords and the 1995 Dayton Accords. But his record after the conclusion of the Dayton Accords was dismal. Croatia's reputation had been tarnished in Bosnia, its economy was stagnant and it was moving farther away from Europe. He waged a losing and deliberately secret battle with cancer, and he died as his party's popularity was ebbing and his political opponents speculated that he might be indicted by the ICTY.
Tudjman left the Croatian state in disarray, but it was sovereign, secure, and had the institutions necessary to build a modern democracy. In 2002, as the ICTY pressed for the extradition of Ante Gotovina, the general who had led the decisive Croatian offensive in 1995, most Croatians remembered Tudjman as the father of his country. It had been a messy business, but if reality had proved more recalcitrant than theory and Tudjman proved more Bismarck or Richelieu than Garibaldi or Mazzini, in the end he had still realized what would have seemed impossible in 1989—a Croatian state.