Croatian President Franjo Tudjman

The Balkans’ (not much) lesser evil.

When Franjo Tudjman dies, as he is expected to any day, his Croatian followers will surely write him an epitaph full of the grandiosity Tudjman adored so much in life. Something like: “Franjo Tudjman: Warrior, Dissident, Man of Letters, Statesman, Liberator, and Father of the Free, Independent, and Democratic Nation of Croatia.” History will remember him more accurately: “Franjo Tudjman: Not Quite as Bad as Milosevic.”

Tudjman’s good fortune is that he has never been quite as nasty, stupid, and uncivilized as his brother-in-crime, Slobodan Milosevic. Tudjman shares Milosevic’s eliminationist nationalism, and he implemented it with similar brutality, using murder, war, exile, and judicial terrorism to empty Croatia of non-Croatians. But the untrammeled brutality of Milosevic’s Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia overshadowed the trammeled brutality of Tudjman’s Croats, and Milosevic’s colorful crudeness appeared more wicked than Tudjman’s schoolmarm prissiness. “Milosevic is a thug. Tudjman is thuggish, but he also craves the respect of the world,” says Yale professor Ivo Banac, who studies Croatia.

Tudjman is a true believer, but he has not always believed the same thing. Born in 1922, he enlisted with Tito’s Communist partisans during World War II. Joining Tito was the only honorable course for a Croat: The other choice was supporting the Nazis and Croatia’s home-grown fascist evil, the Ustasha, which slaughtered Jews and Serbs by the thousands. Tudjman was a fervent Red, and after the war he rose through military and party ranks, eventually becoming the general in charge of party discipline. In 1961, at the height of his career, he quit to immerse himself in Croat history. Soon he was a dissident professor, and he served a term in prison in the early ‘70s for opposing Tito’s dictatorship. Tudjman’s brave stand against communism would be admirable except that he offered an equally bad ideology in its place: ruthless Croat nationalism. Though he had fought the Ustasha, he began to excuse their behavior, arguing that they had killed fewer people than Serbs claimed. He also made anti-Semitic and anti-Serb statements and insisted that Croatia was only for Croats. (The ardent Tudjman contrasts sharply with Milosevic. Tudjman became a nationalist before it was fashionable; Milosevic stumbled into nationalism in the late ‘80s when it was convenient.)

In the late ‘80s, Tudjman used money raised from Croat émigrés in the West to build a nationalist party. When Yugoslavia began to fragment in 1990, Tudjman offered Croats an organization and a convenient replacement ideology. They embraced him. He came to power in 1990, declared Croatia’s independence in 1991, was elected president in 1992, and was re-elected in 1997.

Tudjman awakened and fanned Croats’ sense of aggrievement. (Croats, like everyone else in the Balkans, are aggrieved.) He hearkened back to the 10th century, the only period when Croatia was independent. He reminded his subjects that Yugoslavia’s Serb majority treated Croats like second-class citizens. He blatantly appealed to Croat prejudice, emphasizing that Croats needed to unshackle themselves from the dirty, dark Muslims and Serbs to their south and east and join their real home, Europe. (Fundamentally, Tudjmanism is snobbery.) He resurrected Ustasha symbols, including the chessboard flag and kuna currency.

Conventional wisdom about the Balkan conflicts holds that Milosevic is a pragmatist and Tudjman is an inflexible ideologue. But the history of the past decade suggests the reverse: It is Tudjman who has been flexible enough to triumph, and Milosevic who has been imprisoned by ideology. Tudjman has employed roughly the same tactics as Milosevic but has always pulled back before irrevocably damaging Croatia’s standing.

The two leaders were made for each other. For most of the ‘90s, each used the other to reinforce nationalism at home. When Tudjman rewrote the Croatian Constitution in 1991 to undermine the rights of Serbs, Milosevic used this as a pretext to invade Croatia, capturing the one-quarter of Croatia inhabited by Serbs. Tudjman took advantage of Milosevic’s brutality to ingratiate himself with the West. Before Milosevic invaded, Tudjman had schemed with him to divide Bosnia between them and throw out the Muslims. But after Milosevic double-crossed him, Tudjman brought Croatia into the Bosnian war on the side of the Muslims. Then in 1993, when he thought he could build a Croat state in Bosnia, Tudjman turned on his allies. Bosnian Croat militias–directed by Tudjman from Zagreb–imprisoned thousands of Bosnian Muslims in concentration camps, shelled towns, murdered civilians, and barred humanitarian relief convoys. The Croats laid siege to Mostar, penning 50,000 Muslims inside, cut off food and water, and launched an artillery bombardment.

Once Western pressure became too great, Tudjman, displaying exactly the pragmatism Milosevic lacked, stopped the assault and changed sides again. Tudjman silenced most outside criticism by pushing Bosnian Croats into a federation with Muslims. Tudjman retained enough American support that the United States even allowed retired U.S. military officers to train the Croatian military, despite an arms embargo.

In 1995, Tudjman again showed his talent for limiting his brutality just enough to get away with it. That summer, he invaded the Krajina, the Serb area captured by Milosevic in 1991. The 200,000 Serb residents fled to Serbia rather than fight. Tudjman punctuated the arguably justified invasion with a vicious exclamation point. He had his troops burn down 70 percent of Serbian houses, passed laws to confiscate Serb property, and allowed gangs of Croat thugs to murder the few elderly Serbs who remained. “What he did after the invasion was inexcusable,” says Peter Galbraith, then U.S. ambassador to Croatia.

Even so, Tudjman again restored himself to the West’s (semi-) good graces by signing the Dayton Peace Accords and agreeing to let Serbs return to their burned homes. But he has not allowed them to return in fact. Only a handful of the 200,000 Serbs have come back to the Krajina. (He has also refused to extradite the Croats indicted for war crimes to the Hague, perhaps fearing they would implicate him.)

Domestically, Tudjman has displayed a similar gift for conceding just enough to seem reasonable. Croatia is ostensibly a democracy, but it has functioned under Tudjman like a semi-fascist dictatorship. Tudjman, who is fond of Il Duce-type uniforms, rigged the parliamentary elections so that his nationalist party, HDZ, could not lose. (For example, he guaranteed Bosnian Croats, who are wildly nationalistic, 12 seats in the parliament–even though they don’t live in Croatia.) Tudjman has suppressed independent media and used his control of state television like a club. During the last presidential campaign, according to Galbraith, Tudjman received 250 times as much TV time as his opponent. Tudjman has putatively supported capitalism, but his idea of free enterprise is to privatize industries and give them to his friends. (The Croatian economy, which ought to be thriving from beach tourism and low-wage manufacturing, is a mess.)

This corruption and authoritarianism have irked democracy advocates, but it has not been enough to fully discredit Tudjman. The West dropped its arms embargo. Europe, albeit reluctantly, admitted Croatia into the Council of Europe. Once Tudjman dies, a more democratic Croatia is likely to be admitted to the European Union. Almost everything Tudjman wished for has come true. He has built an independent Croatia, driven virtually all its Serbs and Muslims into exile, and won Croats semi-autonomy in Bosnia. He is, as one writer put it, the “efficient ethnic cleanser.” Milosevic, meanwhile, has turned Yugoslavia into a pariah state, its economy destroyed, its ambitions for Greater Serbia quashed.

Even in dying, Tudjman is proving his gift for pragmatic villainy. Tudjman is reportedly suffering from stomach cancer that has metastasized. According to most reports from Zagreb, Tudjman is brain dead and has been for some weeks. Croatia analysts surmise that HDZ is keeping Tudjman alive as a campaign strategy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for early January, and HDZ is trailing the less nationalistic opposition in the polls. HDZ seems to be trying to time his death for maximal electoral benefit, hoping to generate a swell of patriotic sympathy that will help the party on election day. Tudjman, who built his career on such cold, grotesque, and highly effective sleaziness, would surely appreciate the compliment.