What Does It All Mean
Most of the world media talk about "return of nationalists" in Croatia, while some carefully talk about HDZ being "reformed, pro-European" or "purged from extremists suspected of atrocities during 1991-95 war".
I'm not optimist. This all looks like wishful thinking. After September 11th 2001 USA and the rest of Western world forgot about Balkans. Their governments consider all of the regional problems solved – Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo elected "moderate, pro-Western and democratic" governments in 2000, refugees are returning, borders are being open, market reforms are improving living standards, media is free from hate-speech, war crimes suspects are being handed over to Hague tribunal or tried in domestic courts, former warriors are becoming champions of peaceful cooperation etc. Whenever something happens that doesn't fit this rosy picture, it is ignored and disregarded as something of little or no importance. When guerrilla war continues in Macedonia, it is regarded as "glorified border smuggling". When Serbian prime minister gets gunned down, it is the "desperate act of small band of die-hard ultra-nationalists". When nationalists win in Bosnia (parties that dominate Bosnian national assembly are same ones that led country into the war) they are "reformed".
Why should victory of Ivo Sanader be treated any worse? Since his party replaced "pro-Western moderate democratic" forces on fair, free and democratic elections, it should too be regarded as "pro-Western and moderate", because everything else should indicate that West failed in Croatia between 2000 and 2003.
Of course, Sanader has groomed that image, helped by his foreign backers and domestic media cheerleaders, some of them being unjustly perceived as left-wing "liberals" (Denis Latin, one of Nacional
columnists, once said that "if Sanader becomes democrat, he would be the best option for Croatia"). It wasn't hard to convince Western diplomats in Zagreb who took more pragmatic view of Sanader as "reformed" Tudjmanist, but in their vocabulary "reformed" meant "obedient" to the West. Namely, Sanader, unlike Račan (Racan), didn't have the baggage of Communist past and could do some very unpopular things – giving minority rights to Serbs, pursuing economic policies at the expense of Croatian agriculture, liquidating state-owned businesses that employ tens of thousands of potential voters, arresting Croatian war "heroes" and turning them over to Hague – much easier.
On the other hand, accepting that HDZ reformed merely because Sanader says so is luxury most Croatians couldn't afford.
First of all, when Sanader won the leadership of HDZ, the contest was very tight. The party was evenly split between his "reformist" and "die-hard nationalist" faction led by his arch-nemesis Ivić Pašalić (Ivic Pasalic). Furthermore, convention that gave victory to Sanader was held under suspicious circumstances. So, Pašalić faction either had close to 50 % of support or even more. Needless to say, they weren't purged. Minority joined Pašalić in his doomed HB project, but overwhelming majority remained within HDZ with little or no evidence that they changed their ways. Their decision to stick with Sanader was less motivated by ideology and more by very obvious pragmatism – Sanader not only allowed them to remain in party but also encouraged Pašalić supporters to defect from HB back to HDZ (some of those people did it days before elections).
Needless to say, the main and the only criteria for so-called "purge of compromised elements" within HDZ was lack of loyalty to Sanader. Ideology played very little part in it. Some of Sanader's staunchest supporters and partners were, like him, members of right-wing hard-line faction in Tudjman days. Some of them also have some unpleasant questions to answer in regards to some stuff that took place in areas under their control 1991-95 (armed takeover of independent newspaper, death threats to opposition members, people disappearing in the night, people of "wrong" ethnicity being discovered killed execution-style).
Another worrisome aspect of Sanader is the way in which he crushed dissent within HDZ. Tudjman's party might have "reformed" leader, but its structure is still authoritarian, based on the principle "one man, one party, one idea". This is principle adopted by many other Croatian parties; one of Tudjman's favourite practices –poaching opposition MSes and fermenting "patriotic" faction within opposition parties – resulted in legislation that turned all Croatian parties into authoritarian organisation. Sanader went on record saying that he would "put Croatia in order in the same way he has put HDZ in order". Anyone loving things like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of thought should be worried by that statement.
Finally, Sanader was less than consistent in presenting himself to different audiences. When he talked to Western diplomats and Western journalists he tried to portray himself as reformer who has nothing against return of exiled Serbs to former "Krajina", who is for freedom of media, who is tolerant of different opinion, who would honour Croatian obligation towards Hague Tribunal even when it comes to turning over General Gotovina. But to his electorate, especially in more conservative and rural areas of Croatia, Sanader played different tune – one which resembled good old hard-line Tudjman's nationalism and authoritarianism. SDP leaders and their supporters fell short of being branded as "traitors" and any idea of co-operation with Carla del Ponte was branded as unforgivable crime.
What kind of Sanader is going to rule Croatia? His party would have one or perhaps few more seats of majority. It would be dependant on small parties, and some of those parties are either populist or even more to the right than HDZ. Economic policies of Račan's (Racan's) government would be continued, because they are outside Zagreb's control – all beautiful elections promises of lowered taxes, increased welfare benefits and re-hiring of war veterans into Croatian military and police are not going to be honoured. The only way for HDZ to make some difference is going to be cosmetic – increasingly nationalist rhetoric and increasingly hard-line stance towards minorities in Croatia in order to satisfy chauvinistic desires of HDZ electorate.
I hope I'm wrong. But previous experience taught me to take pessimistic approach towards Croatian future.