Except in Fidel Castro’s island prison and in the hermit Stalinist state of North Korea, it is widely acknowledged today that Communism is a spent force. This view is especially accepted with respect to Europe, where most would agree that the implosion of the Soviet empire swept Marxist-Leninism into the dustbin of history. Yet as Karl Marx himself once observed: “History repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Nowhere is this more true than in modern-day Croatia. As most of Eastern Europe continues to progress toward free-market reforms and Western-style democracy, this small Balkan state is even today making a return to Communism.
Socialist prime minister Ivica Racan came to power in early 2000 on a platform of economic reform, democratic renewal, and an end to the authoritarian policies of Croatia’s previous president, the late Franjo Tudjman. But instead of ushering a Quiet Revolution, the current leftist government has returned the country to a neo-Titoist dark age.
The ruling coalition is full of former Communists who served under the old Yugoslav regime. Tito’s police state persecuted the Croats and was responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of peasants, priests, intellectuals, and pro-democracy dissidents; long-term economic and environmental devastation; and the loss of basic freedoms and human rights. Both Mr. Racan and President Stipe Mesic were lifelong members of the Communist party; and, to this day, they retain a Marxist mindset.
Hostile to their country’s successful bid for independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, Racan and Mesic are promoting Croatia’s entry into the Balkan Stability Pact — an attempt to reforge a Balkan union, minus Slovenia and plus Albania.
Racan and Mesic have never forgiven Mr. Tudjman for what they regard to be his greatest sin: breaking up Yugoslavia and forging an independent Croatian state. For the past three years there has been a systematic campaign in the state-run media (including television) to vilify Croat patriots. Prominent anti-Communist writers and journalists have been fired from newspapers and replaced with pro-leftist hacks, who spout the government’s line on almost every issue.
A classic example of this is the country’s preeminent weekly magazine, Globus. Globus regularly publishes articles and editorials that are more reminiscent of the Communist flagship, Pravda, in the Cold War years than of a modern, Western news magazine. Writers at Globus often inject their articles with factual inaccuracies and fabrications of statements in order to wage smear campaigns against government opponents. As one journalist in Zagreb told me: “They will frequently call someone for an interview and regardless of what that person says, they will print the story that they want — never mind about the truth.”
Gordan Malic, one of the magazine’s prominent neo-Stalinists, has stated that the Mesic-Racan regime should fire every conservative from the state-run media. Sadly, his views are echoed by many other leftists, both in the press and in the government, who seek to impose an ideological uniformity like that of the Titoist era, when journalists were expected to act as mouthpieces for the Communist party.
The attachment to old-style Communist practices can also be seen in Mr. Racan’s economic policies. The government has vowed to bring Croatia into the European Union by 2006. Yet it has no viable plan on how to achieve that goal. Rather than implementing an aggressive pro-growth agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and free-market reforms, the ruling leftist coalition remains wedded to statism and massive government intervention in the economy.
The powers that be have made only tepid efforts at privatization — while doing nothing to scale back the bloated public bureaucracy that is stifling entrepreneurship and private investment. Moreover, they have also failed to clamp down on the economic culture of cronyism and corruption passed down from the Communist era. Bribery and payoffs to public officials remain a prominent fixture of business in Croatia. Rather than waging a war on corruption and providing an attractive climate for foreign investors, Racan’s economic team has remained paralyzed. Having looked to Belgrade for decades to bail out inefficient state-run companies, Zagreb’s former Titoists have based their economic strategy on milking international aid out of Brussels and Washington. Yet contrary to their expectations, significant Western financial assistance has not materialized.
The country is now an economic basket case. The unemployment rate is over 23 percent — a significant increase since the anemic Tudjman years. Zagreb is also saddled with a nearly $10 billion foreign debt. Its annual per capita income is slightly more than $4,000 — half that of neighboring Slovenia and only 60 percent of what it was before Croatia became independent, in 1991. The government’s dismal economic record — combined with its inability to defend the country’s leading generals, such as Janko Bobetko and Ante Gotovina, from deeply flawed and weak indictments by the Balkans war-crimes tribunal — has led to a substantial loss of support among the electorate.
Mr. Racan is likely to lose the national elections to be called sometime this spring. Yet his greatest asset is the fractured conservative opposition, which remains mired in bitter infighting and which has been unable to coalesce around a unifying message or candidate. The main opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is surging in the opinion polls. But its leader, Ivo Sanader, is a vacuous technocrat who has failed to articulate a coherent economic platform. Mr. Sanader’s bigger problem is a political one: He fails to understand that in order to attain an electoral majority he needs to forge a broad, center-right coalition capable of assuming power. Rather than reaching out to potential allies, he remains obsessed with consolidating his hold over the HDZ by waging a nasty purge campaign against all opponents within his own party. The result is that the HDZ has peaked at 30 percent in the polls — a significant political force, but one that remains unable to attract a majority of voters.
Meanwhile, other rightist parties led by Tudjman’s son, Miroslav, and Sanader’s arch-enemy, Ivic Pasalic, are championing a xenophobic nationalism which does not appeal to the mainstream of the electorate. The danger is that the country’s political landscape will become increasingly polarized between the governing hard Left and the right-wing, nationalist opposition, leaving Croatia paralyzed and unable to confront its economic crisis. The Bush administration rightly views Zagreb as pivotal to helping the region recover from the devastation caused by the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Croatia’s slide into economic and social turmoil remains a threat to the long-term stability of the Balkans.
Yet instead of cultivating a viable alternative to the neo-Communists in power, policymakers in the State Department continue to insist that Racan’s brand of leftist internationalism is precisely what the region needs following a decade of ethnic conflict. They are wrong. The problem in the Balkans is not the persistence of nationalism, but the emergence of imperialist ideologies that foster ethnic and religious hatred. The savage wars in the former Yugoslavia were unleashed by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal desire to forge an ethnically pure Great Serb empire stretching from the Danube River to the Adriatic Sea. Today, the greatest threat to peace stems from the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which seeks to either wipe out or convert all Christians in the region. The country now serves as a base for al Qaeda operatives. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, continues to send millions of dollars in aid to “humanitarian” agencies that encourage Bosnian Muslims to promote the doctrines of Wahhabism, a particularly intolerant and puritanical version of Islam. The result has been numerous acts of terror perpetrated upon innocent civilians — especially Catholic Croats. During the past several years, Catholic churches in and around Sarajevo have been vandalized by Islamic extremists. The latest incident occurred on Christmas Eve, when three Croats — a father and his two daughters — were gunned down in their home by an Islamic militant near the town of Konjic, for celebrating Christmas.
As the Bush administration remains focused on Iraq, North Korea, and other trouble spots, it has overlooked the fact that Bosnia is gradually becoming a haven for Saudi mullahs and the fanatical followers of Osama bin Laden. If unchecked, the growth of radical Islam will destabilize the Balkans, plunging it once again into bloodshed and religious conflict. Because Zagreb shares a long, porous border with Bosnia, it, more than any other regional power, has a profound stake in ensuring that Muslim fundamentalism does not emerge as a serious force.
A stable and prosperous Croatia is vital to Western security interests because it is a pivotal front-line state in the war against global terrorism. For centuries, the Croats served as the ramparts of European Christendom, protecting Rome and Vienna from invading Ottoman armies. Washington would be wise to demand that Zagreb again take up its historic role as a strategic bulwark against Islamic expansionism on the continent. But that can only happen after the reign of Racan and his allies has ended.
— Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at the Washington Times. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Croat-Serb conflict in the former Yugoslavia.