The Balkan states which are wedded to their dictators


We natives of the Balkans and south-east Europe always felt something was missing without our dictators. They are like mischievous yet adorable pets we never tire of; they impress us like religious shrines in a devastated political landscape.

The departure of the Slovak strongman, Mr Vladimir Meciar, was not in accordance with the kind of enduring political record of regional autocrats who pulled off dubious electoral successes and stayed in power to the end.

To think that Mr Meciar would go just because he lost the elections; to imagine he would comply with the majority's wishes, is something unheard of in our part of Europe. The two remaining European dictators, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, of Serbia, and Mr Franjo Tudjman, of Croatia, would be contemptuous of such a serious character "flaw". A bad precedent, they would think.

The case of Mr Milosevic is the best known. Despised abroad, hated, insulted and ignored at home, he would claim victory after every defeat he suffered. He became an undefeated master of bizarre tactics, although he defaulted on all his goals. Remember March 1991, when Belgrade was seething with anger? Think of the long winter 1996-97 when 100,000 people banged pots and pans calling for his resignation. Each time he overcame the crisis by waiting for the first crack to show in the forces being marshalled against him.

A seasoned politician with a deep inner knowledge of his people, Mr Milosevic was well aware that his countrymen would indulge the feeling that they could topple him, but in the end would stop short of doing so. If his opponents were ever tempted to finish him off, he could always play, as he often did, the nationalist Kosovo trump card. Too often, Serbs took the bait.

"Smart, charming, evasive," wrote the US special envoy, Mr Richard Holbrooke, of Mr Milosevic. Wickedly smart, yes; dangerously evasive, even more so; but charming? Perhaps only to the American.

Mr Tudjman, of Croatia, has the same understanding of power as his Belgrade counterpart. A solemn patriarch of a small Catholic nation squeezed between Western allegiances and Eastern habits, Mr Tudjman knows what kind of leader his nation prefers.

Although support for his party has slipped from 43 per cent in the first multi-party elections eight years ago to just over 30 per cent, he has never seriously considered giving up power, not even sharing it. Under no circumstances was he ready to relent in his heavy-handed policy towards the media, wielding television as a sword.

His image as patriarch was his shield. The wealth his family had amassed during his reign was a useful tool. The Tudjmans now own estates all over the country, along with trade companies, banks, and sports and leisure complexes. Last month a bank clerk discovered 11 secret accounts running in Mrs Ankica Tudjman's name, one of them containing almost half-a-million deutschmarks. The ensuing controversy was about who helped the clerk break the security code, not about where the money came from.

Apart from a brief period in the early 1990s, Mr Tudjman has never endeared himself to the international community. If Western diplomacy found Mr Milosevic appalling, then Mr Tudjman was plain boring; if the first one meant tragedy, the second was a nuisance.

The West punished Serbs by isolating them; Croats by neglecting them. In the end Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia alike, found themselves in the niche they created alone, far away from the fast-track EU accession countries, not even mentioned among the second-tier candidacies.

Those living in the last surviving European autocracies like Croatia and Serbia can find no comfort in being aware of the political realities of the region. We watched Tito die and hoped for better. We savoured the fall of communism and took to liberty by establishing democracy. We laid our claim to the broader European perspectives, only to be confronted with the deadly charm of two leaders who at least some of us voted into power.

The Croatian newspaper, Feral Tribune, began as a weekly satirical feature in Slobadna Dalmacija, published in Split, writes Michael Foley. When that was taken over by the government in 1993 the Tribune became a separate newspaper.

Attempts were made to kill it at birth. It was refused access to some newspaper kiosks and had to pay a levy on its newsprint similar to that levied on pornographic magazines. Its main target is Croatian president, Dr Franjo Tudjman, whom its journalists claim was attempting to rehabilitate the wartime Ustashe regime. It is now a mix of satire, hard news and serious comment.