President of Croatia
Born Stjepan Mesic, December 24, 1934; married Milka Dudunic; children: two daughters. Education: University of Zagreb, law degree, 1961.
Addresses: Office—Office of The President, Pantovcak 241, 10,000 Zagreb, Croatia. Website—http://www.predsjednik.hr.
Elected to the parliament of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, 1967; elected mayor of Orahovica, 1967; sentenced to one year in prison for political activities, 1970s; became member of the Croatian Democratic Union, 1990; elected to Croatia's parliament, 1990; first prime minister of the Republic of Croatia, 1990-91; president of Yugoslavia, 1991; speaker of the parliament of the Republic of Croatia, 1992-94; founded the political party Independent Croatian Democrats, 1994; president of Croatia, 2000—.
Croatia's election of Stipe Mesic as its president in 2000 signified an embrace of liberal democracy and a rejection of a decade of war and extreme nationalism. Mesic, who was jailed in the 1970s by the Communist regime in what was then Yugoslavia, emerged as a major political figure in 1990 and briefly served as Yugoslavia's president in 1991 as the country was splintering during civil war. A prominent leader in newly independent Croatia, he broke with its strongman president in 1994 and opposed the war in nearby Bosnia. Since his election as president, he has been Croatia's conscience, cooperating with an international war crimes tribunal, reaching out to neighbors to repair the wounds of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and apologizing for the crimes of Croatia's World War II government.
Mesic, whose first name, Stjepan, is usually shortened to Stipe in English, was born in the town of Orahovica in Croatia when it was part of Yugoslavia. He studied law at the University of Zagreb, where (according to his official biography) he was a prominent student leader. He was elected mayor of Orahovica and to the Croatian parliament in 1967. But in 1971, he supported the Croatian Spring movement, which advocated equality for Croatia within Yugoslavia. The country's Communist government opposed the movement, and Mesic was sentenced to a year in the Stara Gradiska prison for his participation in it. He did not participate in politics again until free elections replaced Yugoslavia's Communist regime.
In 1990, Mesic became a member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), was elected to Croatia's parliament, and named Croatia's prime minister. He also became Croatia's representative in Yugoslavia's presidency. At the time, Yugoslavia had a collective presidency made up of representatives from the nation's six republics and two provinces, and the position of president rotated among the eight members. But with the Communist regime gone, the tensions among the different republics were set loose. In 1991, when it was Croatia's turn to take over the presidency for a year, members of the presidency who were loyal to Serbia blocked Mesic from becoming president.
That action started a civil war among the Yugoslav republics. Slovenia declared it would secede from Yugoslavia in June of 1991, and Croatians voted to do the same. The Yugoslav army, dominated by Serbs, began fighting the secessionists, and the Serbinfluenced members of the presidency vetoed attempts for Mesic to establish control over the army. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was postponed in July when the deadlock broke, Mesic was elected president, and Slovenia and Croatia agreed to postpone secession for three months.
But the day that agreement expired, the Yugoslav army, no longer controlled by the federal government, attacked Croatia's presidential palace while Mesic and Croatia's president were inside. The navy blockaded the Croatian resort town of Dubrovnik, and Serb-led forces fired mortars and grenades at it. At the end of October of 1991, Mesic and Croatian Prime Minister Franjo Greguric led a fleet of boats to break the siege of the city, in order to call worldwide attention to it, and were allowed to land there.
In December of that year, Mesic resigned as president, saying the federation of Yugoslavia no longer existed. (Yugoslavia actually carried on for another eleven years, but with only two republics, Serbia and Montenegro, left in it.) Croatia and the Serb-led forces reached a cease-fire in 1992, but Serbs retained control of parts of Croatia for years afterward, and Croatia soon became involved in the war in the neighboring former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In 1992, Mesic was elected to Croatia's parliament and named speaker of its lower house. However, in 1994, he and Josip Manolic, speaker of the upper house, broke with the HDZ party and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman over several issues, most importantly the Bosnian war. The two speakers accused the president of abusing his power, not respecting freedom of the press or the rights of minorities, and allowing only people completely loyal to him to hold any power. They formed a new political party, the Independent Democrats. Mesic and Manolic argued, in a letter to Tudjman, that his main goal was to "intimidate and silence the HDZ membership, government administration officials, and the Croatian political public, and to prevent democratic discussion on the current issues essential for the democratic future of Croatia," according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Mesic and Manolic charged that Tudjman was trying to expand Croatia by taking over parts of Bosnia. (Starting in 1993, Tudjman had supported separatist ethnic Croats in Bosnia who were fighting the Muslim-led Bosnian government. International pressure later led him to endorse a Croat-Muslim federation dedicated to fighting the two groups' common enemy, Bosnian Serb forces supported by Serbia. Mesic and Manolic charged that Tudjman's support of the federation was not genuine.)
Tudjman remained president until his death in December of 1999. Elections were called for January, and Mesic declared himself a candidate for president. Frank criticism of Tudjman had been rare while he was alive, but Mesic quickly impressed Croatians with his candor. He declared that the war in Bosnia had been a mistake and that Croatia should cooperate with the international tribunal looking into war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. He also charged that Croatian politicians had stolen millions of dollars while in power. He promised to cut off Croatia's financial support to Bosnian Croats and their army and to no longer allow them to vote in Croatian elections. "I sent the blunt message to the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina that they have to turn toward Sarajevo," Mesic told Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, referring to the capital of Bosnia. "They must lose all illusions that they will one day be part of Croatia."
Tudjman had been fond of wearing white military uniforms decorated with braids and sashes, and he had required every member of his cabinet to come to the airport to see him off whenever he left the country. To make himself seem as different as possible from Tudjman, Mesic held a series of chats with voters in coffeehouses as part of his campaign. "Fancy a coffee with the president? Let's go," his campaign ads said, according to R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post. "With bushy black eyebrows, a close-cropped beard, and a bristle haircut, Mesic appears more avuncular and jolly than most of his eight opponents," Smith wrote. "Mesic speaks in broad terms, gently waves his hands, and swats away criticism with irreverent humor. He says he is proud of driving a four-year-old Volkswagen Golf and promises his net worth won't be any greater after he leaves office." Mesic also promised to pare down the vast presidential powers Tudjman had accumulated.
Mesic came in first in the first round of presidential elections, with 42 percent of the vote, then won the second round in February with 56 percent. "We want to convince the world that Croatia is a part of Europe and that Europe is in Croatia, too," Mesic told his supporters after his election, according to Smith of the Washington Post. "We want to fulfill our strategic goals of entering the European Union and NATO as soon as possible." At his inauguration later that month, Mesic pledged to support human rights, the war crimes tribunal, and free markets. Western leaders and diplomats, including United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who attended the ceremony and immediately invited Mesic to visit Washington, expressed hope that Bosnia and Yugoslavia might also become more democratic.
By April of 2000, Mesic told Chicago Tribune reporter Tom Hundley that he had already cut the number of presidential staff members. The country was about to switch from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system, which meant the president would retain authority over defense and foreign policy, but parliament would be the major decisionmaker. Mesic also promised to investigate possible theft by members of the previous government and their cronies. "We must prosecute all of those people who have emptied the treasury, or who permitted or took active part in the capital drain from Croatia," he told Hundley. "We must also prosecute all of those who abused their offices in the process of privatization or took part in the Mafia-like destruction of the Croatian economy. The difference between the Croatian mafia and Italian Mafia is that the Italian still operates underground."
The new government quickly cooperated with the war crimes tribunal. In March of 2000, it turned over suspect Mladan Naletilic, whom the previous government had avoided extraditing for two years. It also shared some files with the tribunal and allowed it to investigate inside Croatia. When seven generals protested the government's cooperation with the tribunal that October, Mesic retired them. The pressure got more intense after reformers were elected in Yugoslavia and turned over former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the war crimes court. (Serbs in Yugoslavia were complaining that Croatia had not extradited any Croatian citizens to the court, only Bosnian Croats.) In July of 2001, the Croatian cabinet voted to extradite any Croatian indicted by the court, a decision which caused four dissenting ministers to quit. Mesic stuck to his commitment, though, and even testified at the trial of Milosevic in 2002. He told the court that Milosevic repeatedly tried to divide Yugoslavia ethnically in order to create a Greater Serbia. "I never saw any sign of feeling in him, ever," Mesic told the judges, according to the Washington Post's Katie Nguyen. "All he had was goals he was implementing."
Abroad, Mesic often played the role of a diplomatic healer. He visited Israel in 2001 and apologized for the crimes of Croatia's World War II-era Nazi puppet government, which ran concentration camps where Jews and others were executed. When he met with Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, and the three members of Bosnia's presidency in 2002, the first meeting of the three countries' leaders since the 1991 war, they promised to repair their relations and cooperate to return war refugees home. A year later, after Yugoslavia renamed itself Serbia-Montenegro, Mesic visited its capital, Belgrade. Serbia-Montenegro's new president, Svetozar Marovic, apologized "for all the evils any citizen of Serbia and Montenegro has committed against any citizen of Croatia," according to Alissa J. Rubin and Zoran Cirjakovic of the Los Angeles Times'). "In my name I also apologize to all those who have suffered pain or damage at any time from citizens of Croatia who misused or acted against the law," Mesic responded.
Croatia moved back to the right politically in late 2003, when the HDZ, now positioning itself in the political center-right under new leader Ivo Sanader, won parliamentary elections. That made Western observers nervous, even though the HDZ had recently abandoned Tudjman's defiant nationalism. When Mesic's term as president was about to expire, the deputy prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, ran against him as the HDZ candidate. But Mesic won re-election easily, with 66 percent of the vote, in January of 2005. Even though the presidency did not have nearly as much power as it once had, Western diplomats were relieved. "In many respects, Mesic had been the moral correction in this country," an unnamed senior European diplomat stationed in Croatia told CNN.com.
"I'm proud of the maturity of Croatia's democracy," said Mesic after his re-election, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It has been recognized by the world and Europe. That is why we are at the doors of Europe." Mesic was referring to Croatia's attempt to enter the European Union, a goal he had not accomplished in his first term.
As 2005 began, Croatia had aimed to open negotiations about joining the EU that March. However, many EU nations were skeptical that Croatia was still complying fully with the war crimes tribunal. One man was at the center of the debate: Ante Gotovina, the last Croatian war crimes suspect still on the loose. An army general, Gotovina was indicted in connection with the deaths of 150 Serbs and the expulsion of 150,000 others during a 1995 offensive that reclaimed Croatian land from Serb forces. The EU demanded that Croatia hand over Gotovina.
During the election, Mesic had said more than his opponent about what he would do to arrest Gotovina. But by March, Mesic was trying to convince the EU that Gotovina was no longer in Croatia. Meanwhile, a wave of nationalism swept through the country. Many Croatians thought of Gotovina as a hero for his role in the war with the Serbs. To try to fight the trend, Mesic declared that the government had to cooperate better with the tribunal. (He also reiterated his refusal to sign an agreement exempting Americans from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which the United States does not recognize, explaining that Croatians could not agree to exempt the United States from an obligation Croatia was respecting.) In April of 2005, Mesic also accused Gotovina and another general (now deceased) of being responsible for the deaths of their own soldiers during a 1993 offensive. The same month, Croatian police arrested two people they suspected of giving Gotovina a false passport to help him flee the country. Meanwhile, Mesic atoned once more for Croatians' World War II crimes, by speaking at Croatia's most infamous concentration camp.
The Demise of Yugoslavia: A Political Memoir, Central European University Press, 2003.
AP Worldstream, March 10, 2005; April 22, 2005; April 25, 2005; April 26, 2005; April 29, 2005; May 5, 2005.
Chicago Tribune, April 16, 2000; October 1, 2000, p. 19; July 16, 2002, p. 6; January 17, 2005, p. 7.
Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1994; February 7, 2000, p. 8.
International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2005.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1991, p. 1; July 1, 1991, p. 1; October 8, 1991, p. 1; October 31, 1991, p. 4; December 6, 1991, p. 21; February 19, 2000, p. 9; July 9, 2001, p. A3; November 1, 2001, p. A22; September 11, 2003, p. A3.
New York Times, February 7, 2000, p. A10; February 8, 2000, p. A12.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 31, 2000, p. 4A.
Washington Post, January 22, 2000, p. A13; February 13, 2000, p. A23; October 2, 2002, p. A18; November 24, 2003, p. A17.
"Croatia," Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article?tocid=223957 (May 30, 2005).
"Mesic takes victory in Croatia," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/01/16/croatia.result.reut/index.html (January 19, 2005).
"Stjepan Mesic—biography," Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia, http://www.predsjednik.hr/default.asp?ru=101&sid=&akcija=&jezik=2 (May 30, 2005).