Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World: Croatian Jews Hope Elections Will End Country’s Era of Isolation

January 7, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Jewish community here is welcoming the results of Croatia’s parliamentary elections, hoping that the change of government will end their country’s isolation.

The apparent victory of a center-left coalition in Monday’s elections marks the end of a highly nationalistic regime led by the late President Franjo Tudjman.

The coalition, which includes the Social Democrats, under Ivica Racan, and Social Liberals, led by Drazen Budisa, have promised to build bridges to the West, which, according to historian Ivo Goldstein, is good news for Croatia’s 2,000 Jews.

“The Jewish population wants to be part of an integration of states because we want to have more intensive contact with other communities,” said Goldstein, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Zagreb.

Final results will not be available until later this month, but Racan seems set to be the country’s new prime minister. Elections for a new president are slated for Jan. 24, and this week’s results are seen as an important precursor to those presidential elections.

Goldstein was particularly elated by the results — his father, Slavko Goldstein, was a founder of the Social Liberals and was the party’s first leader, from 1989 to 1990.

But Goldstein wasn’t the only one who was pleased by the election results.

He said he was at the Jewish community center the day after the elections and “everybody was — not celebrating, but very happy.”

The vote marked the first time that the Croatian Democratic Union, which was led by Tudjman from 1990 until his death at the end of last year, lost power since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Tudjman’s support of a client Croat army in Bosnia and his refusal to deliver accused war criminals for trial had isolated Croatia internationally.

Goldstein said that events in the 20th century had cut Croatia’s Jewish community off from other European communities.

Croatian entry into the European Union — still a very far-off prospect, as the E.U. has not even accepted Croatia as an applicant — would help reverse that trend, Goldstein said.

Goldstein said that although the Social Democrats is the reformed Communist Party, and Budisa of the Social Liberals has a nationalist past, Croatia’s Jews have nothing to fear.

“Racan is a social democrat like in Germany, and Budisa was a nationalist but is moving towards liberalism,” said Goldstein.

“Budisa has never said anything about Jews,” the historian said. “He is very, very far from Tudjman in terms of Jews, history, Europe, America.

“Racan and Budisa are not the best men you could find on earth,” he said, “but they’re better than Tudjman.”

Although there is some consensus that Tudjman, the architect of independent Croatia who died Dec. 10, was not an anti-Semite, he was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism, and he altered sections of his memoirs in English translation to mute that claim.

Tudjman was a nationalist who fought for the anti-Nazi partisans during World War II. After Israel and Croatia established diplomatic relations in 1997, the Knesset requested that Tudjman not visit the Jewish state. In the end, Croatia sent its moderate Western-oriented foreign minister, Mate Granic, in Tudjman’s place.

Zagreb’s small Jewish community was not sad to see Tudjman gone.

“He was a revisionist,” Goldstein said of Tudjman, adding that the former president promoted “Croatia-centrism” under which all minorities were pushed to the margins. “We were equal in rights, but not in value.”

Slaven Letica, a former Tudjman advisor who became a prominent critic of the regime, dismissed the claim that Tudjman disliked Jews.

“He was poorly educated, not anti-Semitic,” said Letica.

“He was fascinated with the Bible and Jews as intellectuals,” said Letica, who is not Jewish.

The Jewish Community of Zagreb, which numbers about 1,500, had not taken an official position on the elections, said Dean Friedrich, secretary-general of the community.

Friedrich said that Croatia’s Jewish community has always had a good relationship with Croatian governments.

Because Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito broke with Stalin after World War II, Yugoslavia was never firmly part of the Soviet bloc and consequently did not have the same anti-religious attitude as much of the bloc, Friedrich explained. He pointed out that the Jewish community center has been housed in the same building since before the war.

“The community here was always open to the public,” he said.

Historian Goldstein said the elections are part of the process of depoliticizing Jews and Judaism in Croatia after a year that saw the first Eastern European trial and conviction of a concentration camp commander.

In October 1999, Dinko Sakic, 78, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes as commander of the Jasenovac camp during World War II.

Such issues are behind Croatia now, Goldstein said.

Victorious politicians “Budisa and Racan are not speaking about the past. They want to speak about the future,” he said.

“Jews are not a political issue any more,” Goldstein said. “We are part of the normal world.”

Recommended from JTA