SKOPJE, Macedonia, July 23 (UPI) -- The first gay parade in Croatia's history ended in bloody clashes with Nazi-saluting skinheads and the members of a soccer fan club.
Police fired tear gas and arrested 26. Another 10 ended up in the hospital. The 300 marchers called for increased social tolerance and legislation to protect sexual minorities. The Minister of Interior urged them to "love yourselves and fight for your rights."
Only the day before, the Croatian president, Stipe Mesic, won the Crans Montana Forum Foundation award for promoting peace, democracy, and international cooperation. Quoted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting Balkans report, Viktor Ivancic, the editor of the "Feral Tribune," an opposition weekly published in Split, bemoaned Croat intolerance.
"What occurred during this peaceful march of homosexuals ... has dispelled the illusion of a humane nation," Mesic said.
A survey carried out earlier this year in nine countries and territories in Southeastern Europe by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or IDEA, showed Croats to be as worried about unemployment as their Bosnian neighbors -- despite having an incomparably richer and more developed economy. Almost three quarters rated joblessness as their greatest concern. Croats tend to trust the private sector far more than they trust their politicians.
This is rather unexpected. The Western media have consistently demonized the former ruling party, the HDZ, and its authoritarian and corrupt leader, Franjo Tudjman. Croatia's economic troubles -- its unemployment amounted to 20 percent at the time -- were squarely blamed on the HDZ's xenophobia, civil and human rights abuses, sheltering of war criminals, mismanagement, and virulent nationalism.
So unyielding was the regime's grip that even today, according to the BBC World Service, more than 80 percent of Croats tune in to HRT, the state-owned TV station, for news and entertainment -- an unprecedented phenomenon in post-communist countries.
After Tudjman died, the HDZ was replaced two years ago by a bunch of politicians described by the BBC as "far more committed to Croatia's integration into the European mainstream." The constitution was re-written making Croatia's government less presidential and more parliamentary.
Croatia joined the World Trade Organization and, concurrent with Macedonia, negotiated a stabilization and association agreement with the European Union -- now being ratified in European Union countries' national parliaments. As a member of the informal Vilnius group of NATO candidates, Croatia repeatedly called upon the alliance to expand aggressively in its forthcoming summit in November 2002 in Prague.
In the last 30 days alone, Croatia signed a free trade agreement with Albania and another one regarding immigration and tourism with Bulgaria. Croatia is on the verge of signing a multilateral accord with the central European free trade zone.
The owlish and bearded Ivica Racan, leader of the Social Democratic Party, competently led a center-left five-party coalition government, formed in January 2000, through this startling transmutation from near international pariah to the darling of multilaterals of all persuasions.
The European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Research and Development have just approved yet another $61 million to construct the last two sections of the Rijeka-Zagreb highway. This comes on the heels of massive European Investment Bank funds invested in a railway connecting the country to Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
This "favored nation" treatment trickles down to the private sector. The World Bank's private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp. concluded last month a $9.1 million small and medium enterprises loan facility with the soon-to-be-privatized Croatia Banka. Other Croatian banks were recently purchased by foreign direct investors -- e.g., the latest completed purchase of Rijecka Banka by Austria's second-largest bank, Erste Sparkasse.
Croatia is in the throes of a conscious effort to mend fences with its erstwhile mortal enemy, Yugoslavia. A fortnight ago, the chambers of commerce of the two countries concluded two agreements which tackle the thorny issue of claims following the succession of the former federation. Croatia has even, controversially, taken to handing to their prosecutors revered military figures indicted by the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
The U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Pierre-Richard Prosper, in a statement broadcast on HRT, extolled Croatia as a "regional leader" in extraditing suspects. He noted the international community's growing readiness to relegate the task of judging the miscreants to indigenous Croat courts.
But Croatia's more immediate friction is with peaceful and prosperous Slovenia, an imminent EU member. On June 28, the second-largest party in Racan's precarious coalition -- the Croatian Social Liberal Party, or HSLS, headed by the irascible Drazen Budisa -- walked out on a parliamentary session, vocally refusing to ratify a treaty with the neighbor regarding a shared ownership of the disputed Krsko power plant. It was only the latest in a series of crises that rocked the coalition since the beginning of the year.
Mesic exhorted the disobedient parliamentarians to adhere to government policies. Early elections will slow the reforms, he warned through the independent Croat daily, Vecernji List. He threatened to support a minority government and to tap Racan for his current job again.
To little avail. Both Racan and HSLS were angling to precipitate a crisis -- the former to get rid of the latter and the latter to unseat the former in an early ballot. Threatening to resign the following week, the prime minister resubmitted the controversial treaty ratification bill. Six HSLS deputies voted for and nine abstained.
The bill passed. The nine disgruntled renegades threatened to defect and join other parties. The opposition Democratic Centre and Croatian Democratic Union (the former HDZ ruling party) announced they will not support a government headed by a reappointed Racan. Seeing an opportunity to split the HSLS and regain his position as prime minister, Racan resigned on July 5. In a feat of divine timing, the Dalai Lama arrived, on July 7, for his first visit of the troubled country. He delivered a propitious lecture on constructive dialogs.
On July 10, Mesic, as was widely expected, appointed Racan to form the new government. He has 30 days to accomplish this. A failure will result in new elections. A letter of support bore the signatures of 84 out 150 parliamentarians. The federation of Independent Croatian Unions (NHS) urged Racan to include in his new government experts with limited political involvement -- i.e., technocrats. But these important events were overshadowed by the mood altering decision of defending men's singles champion Goran Ivanisevic not to play at Wimbledon.
Racan used the grace period to pass a few crucial laws in Parliament. On July 12, the body voted to compensate Serb refugees whose real estate was expropriated to accommodate internally displaced persons. HINA, the news agency, gained independence by becoming a "public institution."
The next day, in a rite of self-mutilation, the HSLS expelled 12 party members who continued to support the government, defying the party line. These included the Deputy Prime Minister Goran Granic, Defense Minister Jozo Rados, and two other incumbent ministers, Hrvoje Kraljevic and Andro Vlahusic.
The country was slightly distracted by a historically significant reconciliation between the former warring parties in Sarajevo. On July 15, the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia issued the "Sarajevo Declaration" pledging amicable cooperation on an impressive range of subjects: property rights, trade, the fight against terrorism and organized crime, social protection, the return of refugees, economic cooperation. Washington applauded.
But this harmonious spirit did not traverse Croatia or infect Slovenia. In the city of Karlovac in Croatia, the ruling coalition expelled the HSLS. And Slovenia's Minister of the Environment refused to pay compensation for free electricity it failed to deliver to Croatia as part of the controversial nuclear power pact. The Slovene Constitutional Court is taking its time in rendering a decision on the legal status of the Krsko agreement, which remains non-ratified by Slovenia's legislature.
Racan probably has little appetite to continue to rule at the mercy of capricious independents and the pleasure of party fragments. Even if he succeeds to form a new government, it is likely to be a lame duck one. He may yet pull a "Chirac" on the startled electorate and bet the family house by asking Mesic to declare early elections. And as opposed to the French president in 1997, he may yet pull it off.
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