“In Tito’s Shadow”
“Why should I be a minority in your country, when you can be a minority in mine?” – Modern Balkan expression
The ride to the Presidential Residence is scenic. The winding road is carved into a meticulously maintained forest and leads upwards to a hill with an understated stone sculpture. It resembles a nature conservatory, only with armed plain-clothed security, metal detectors, and overly costumed Palace Guards, decked out in red and gold, with bayoneted rifles and fez-like hats: like a low-budget version of the Buckingham Palace Guard. The estate was one of Tito’s many residences built in the Cold War early-’60s style familiar to anyone who’s seen a James Bond film or visited the UN. There are, of course, no red stars, but there is one bust of Tito placed alone and unattended in the foyer.
Through security, we enter the main hall, “where many heads of state were entertained,” I’m told. It boasts a parquet floor, one baby grand piano, 18-foot ceilings, and a plush carpet the entire 54-foot length of the hall. A small reception table now holds a compact make-up kit for the President’s TV appearance.
A flurry of aides and the ubiquitous security men mill around for an hour before he makes his appearance. Most, except the security, begin to get the breathless jitters one sees in underlings forever concerned about their jobs.
And then Franjo Tudjman enters, relaxed and smiling wearily at the make-up lady, comically annoyed at having to undergo another TV interview. He is a man of 76, with a rigid back and expressive hands. He speaks without once unclenching his teeth, and always through the right side of his mouth, somewhere between a stroke victim and W.C. Fields.
His emotions are all on the surface. He is passionate about his country, and short-tempered with all criticism. He is a man completely made of politics. To every question, personal or political, he answers in terms of historical forces and allegiances: fascism, communism, and everything and everybody in between who may be the enemy of Croatian nationalism. It’s a familiar rap to anyone acquainted with his beliefs, and one that informs every single action since his run for the presidency. Other opinions and facts are simply not addressed or acknowledged. It’s a single-mindedness befitting a military man, but questionable for a head of state.
Only the day before this interview, October 6, 1997, a deal is announced in which 10 Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects “voluntarily” surrender to The Hague. This announcement is followed by the release of a $40 million credit to Croatia by the International Monetary Fund, an amount much less than my literary advance.
I decide to test his anger with a few of the questions.
“Mr. President, yesterday Croatia agreed that its war criminals will surrender themselves to The Hague. Do you see war crimes as an unavoidable part of war? It was reported that when you learned about the death camps in Bosnia in 1993 you expressed no surprise, saying that that others had camps as well.”
He grimaces: is it the blinding TV lights or anger toward my question?
“I do not think it would be correct to speak about a people who voluntarily go to The Hague Tribunal as war criminals,” he speaks through his interpreter, “because according to any national or international law – they have been indicted, but nobody is guilty until proven so.” Tudjman pauses. Moments later the interpreter pauses. I start to ask a follow-up, when Tudjman continues. “I definitely am in favor and support investigation of all such cases, but again, let me repeat, I am not in favor of regarding in the same terms those who caused the aggression, who caused all these tragedies, who jeopardized both the existence of Croatia and the life of its citizens, and those people who during various operations could not curb, could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate.”
The tone of his response is filled with such finality that I wonder if our interview is over before it even begins.
I plow on with my next question. “Mr. President, there are critics who claim your political party has replaced the communists as a one-party regime, in which your appointees dominate the economy, and in which the main media are under strict control.”
He bows his head, laughs, then, responds, as if placating a baby who had wet the carpet. “Well, I know that you are well intentioned, so I will try to answer some of these questions. First of all, let me claim that there are more democratic rights being granted in this country that in any Western country.” He coughs, swallows, and continues like a patient with a bad taste of medicine on his tongue. “And I can also claim with full responsibility that I personally, and the Croatian government, have less influence, less impact on TV, than is the case in your own country, the United States.”
“But when I spoke recently with Mate Granic, your foreign minister, he told me, off the record, that your government ‘quite frankly has more control of the TV media than the press.’”
In that split second, Tudjman turns angry, huffing and shrugging his shoulders like a turkey in a cockfight.
“Mate, Mate, Mate …” Although his foreign minister is not in the room, I can only imagine how he is now feeling the cold hands of Tudjman slapping his face in disapproval. Then Tudjman falls silent.
“Mr. President, is that the end of our interview?”
That is the end of our interview.
He leaves immediately. Seconds after he’s gone, the crew all has a good laugh, and everyone is grabbing heavy drinks from the kitchen. It is 11:30 a.m. They’re imagining how the old man will chew out Mate Granic, this poor, liberal cabinet official – the Little Monk, as he is nicknamed – who was once considered to be next in line when Tudjman dies. I hope I didn’t just change the course of international politics. I’d better book my return ticket.