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Tudjman Gives Croatia-Eye View Of Tragedies in Former Yugoslavia

Controversial president takes steps to change his image in the West. PROFILE

YOU'RE the authoritarian ruler of a newly independent state whose politics encouraged ethnic tensions at home and whose hankering for more real estate fueled conflict in a neighboring country.

The United States and other Western countries threaten tough economic sanctions.

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Tempted by offers of Western aid and membership in the NATO ``Partnership for Peace'' program, you switch gears and become Washington's newest chum in Eastern Europe. You sign a US-brokered peace accord with Bosnian Croat proxies and the Bosnian Muslims.

But what to do about that Balkan-size image problem?

For President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, part of the answer was to have a Washington public relations firm invite US reporters to Zagreb this week for interviews marking his metamorphosis.

He also followed up the Bosnia accord by accepting a truce with minority Serb rebels who seized large parts of Croatia after he declared independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991.

Finally, the Marxist guerrilla-turned-general-turned-dissident-turned-president attended the Zagreb premier of the movie ``Schindler's List'' last week in a bid to shed a reputation for anti-Semitism gained from a book he wrote that plays down the Holocaust.

But has there really been a change in the man who presided over a revival of the symbols of his nation's pro-Nazi era, ethnic cleansing and atrocities, repression of critics and a free press, and a slow, corruption-rife trudge toward market reforms?

Tudjman's shift

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Without doubt, Mr. Tudjman's politics have radically shifted since he jumped aboard the US-led peace drive: Muslim-Croat reconciliation in Bosnia, renewed commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Serb rebellion in Croatia, and full cooperation with human rights and United Nations war crimes investigations.

But Tudjman offers little evidence he is anything but a political weather vane during a meeting with US reporters: Instead of conciliation and contrition for past acts, the Croatian leader denies any responsibility for the Yugoslav tragedy, even as he offers his own version of history.

``There is no doubt that the blame for all these evils ... will fall on Great Serbian politics,'' Tudjman says.

``As far as I'm concerned, not only as president of the Republic of Croatia, but also as a historian, I don't think I have made any strategic mistakes,'' he adds.

But what about the numerous Bosnian Croat military defeats, Western moves to impose sanctions provoked by the deployment of regular Croatian troops in Bosnia, and international outrage over atrocities committed by his Bosnian Croat proxies?

``We have not changed our policy under any pressure,'' he asserts in the interview at his residence. ``I wouldn't say there have been any essential changes in Croatian policy as far as Bosnia is concerned.''

In fact, he argues: ``It was the Muslim leadership that had to be convinced of the need to change their policy and not the Croats. So ... we see a convergence of Croatian policies and Western policies.''

There was also a new geography lesson: ``Croatia does not belong to the Balkan area.''

Since he commands international sympathy in his conflict with Croatia's Serbs, Tudjman made his most concerted attempt to rewrite the record concerning the genesis of the war that erupted last spring between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats.

His version explained

The conflict, he says, erupted not because he illegally forced the replacement of Bosnian Croat moderates in the Muslim-led Sarajevo government with hard-liners bent on carving out a self-declared state and fusing it to Croatia. Nor did it result from his proxies' secret meetings with Bosnian Serb leaders, alleged seizures of Bosnian Army weapons supplies, ethnic cleansing of Muslims long before any fighting began, or attempts to wrest command of Bosnian troops on ``Croatian land.''

Echoing the same story as the Serb leaders in Belgrade, Tudjman claims the fighting was sparked by Bosnian Muslim offensives aimed at establishing an Iranian-style puritanical Islamic state.

``Some Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina faced mujahideen fundamentalist attempts at making inroads against the Croatian people ... in order to create an Islamic state,'' Tudjman says.

Apparently trying to excuse atrocities committed by the Bosnian Croats, Tudjman adds: ``There were songs sung by the Muslims that there would be no Croats from Istanbul to all the way to Trieste [northern Italy]. And this caused some people to lose their bearings.''

Did he regret the Bosnian Croat barrages and siege of some 55,000 Muslims in Mostar and the destruction of its famed 16th century bridge?

``We have drawn our lessons from this, and some of the responsible people were removed from both political and military life,'' he says, omitting the fact that it was US pressure that forced those ousters. ``It is not only the Croats who are to be blamed for the developments in Mostar,'' he adds.

Asked about his dispatch of regular Croatian troops to another state, Tudjman says they ``were present only in one part'' of Bosnia, although Croatia also armed and dispatched to Bosnia ``volunteers'' from among its own citizens who originated there.

Never mind that Western estimates put the number of Croatian troops deployed around central Bosnia at up to 10,000. Nor did it matter that many of Tudjman's ``volunteers'' were mobilized in Croatia by force.

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