How do Croats remember Franjo Tudjman

President Franjo Tudjman, a fierce nationalist lionized by his people for leading them to independence more than eight years ago but reviled by enemies who held him responsible for war crimes, has died, Croatian state television announced today. He was 77.

Croatian television interrupted regular programming at 2 a.m. for a brief announcement of the president’s death.

“The big heart of President Franjo Tudjman ceased to beat,” parliament Speaker Vlatko Pavletic said on television. The constitution calls for Pavletic, who was given temporary power Nov. 26 to act as Croatia’s leader, to become president.

Tudjman had been hospitalized and reported to be on life-support machines here in the capital since emergency abdominal surgery Nov. 1 to repair a perforated large intestine, a condition that was complicated by peritonitis and internal bleeding.

He also had a history of heart problems and, after receiving treatment at a Washington clinic in 1996, was rumored to have stomach cancer. Tudjman had persistently denied that he was suffering from cancer.

Tudjman ran Croatia and the ruling party he founded, the Croatian Democratic Union, largely as a one-man show, so his death creates a political vacuum here.

Even as he lay dying, three factions in his party had fought over the right to pick his successor, and rival parties maneuvered to make the most out of growing discontent with his government.

Tudjman’s rule and his legacy were intertwined with the violent breakup of the former Yugoslav federation at the beginning of the decade.

Warren Zimmermann, the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992, blamed Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic for the federation’s collapse. Milosevic, now president of what remains of Yugoslavia, was then leader of the country’s dominant republic, Serbia.

“Although the history, especially the slaughters in World War II, offered a lot of material for ethnic hatred, it took the institutionalized nationalism of Milosevic and Tudjman to bring the torch,” Zimmermann wrote in his 1996 book “Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers.”

To most Croats, Tudjman was a national hero who devoted his later life to the struggle against Communist rule in Yugoslavia and the achievement of an independent Croatia with stronger ties to the West.

After Croatia’s declaration of independence triggered a war in 1991, Tudjman’s forces quickly lost control of at least one-quarter of the new nation to Serbian rebels armed and backed by Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. But Tudjman led his troops to a decisive victory after securing Western training and weapons for his troops.

Croatia’s independence proved lucrative for his family. As its wealth grew--reportedly reaching an estimated $700 million in 1998--so did allegations of corruption.

Tudjman’s wife, Ankica, a typist by training who runs a children’s charity, denied any wrongdoing after a bank employee leaked details of the Croatian first lady’s ample foreign currency account.

The Croatian president’s daughter, Nevenka Kosutic, is said to have become rich as a partner in various joint ventures, such as duty-free shops. One of Tudjman’s sons, Stjepan, dabbled in film distribution, car rentals, hotels and restaurants, while the other, Miroslav, did stints as the chief of Croatia’s secret service.

Tudjman was born in the Croatian village of Veliko Trgovisce on May 14, 1922. His mother, Justina, died when Tudjman was 7 years old. His brother, Stjepan, was killed during World War II as a member of the anti-fascist movement.

His father, also named Stjepan, was slain in 1946 by the secret police of Yugoslavia’s new Communist government, according to the Croatian president’s official biography.

Though Tudjman lacked a pedigree as a war hero, he rose quickly to become the youngest general in the Yugoslav People’s Army during the Communist dictatorship of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

But Tudjman later became a nationalist dissident. In 1972, the Yugoslav government sentenced him to two years in jail for “hostile activity against the state,” a penalty reduced to nine months on appeal.

Nine years later, he was sentenced to another three years in jail for saying in interviews that there was no freedom of speech in Yugoslavia.

The human rights group Amnesty International called Tudjman a political prisoner. While an inmate in Lepoglava prison, he reportedly had four heart attacks.

But once he was in power, Tudjman didn’t hesitate to come down hard on critics who tested the limits of their right to freedom of speech.

Activists charged that Tudjman tried to silence critics such as Ivan Cicak, head of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

In a 1997 interview with a Croatian newspaper, Cicak accused Tudjman of making a deal with Milosevic six years earlier to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina between them. Bosnia’s population includes Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

Cicak “is regularly vilified by both government officials and the state-run press, and he and his family also have been subjected to physical attacks,” the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights charged at the time.

After alternately fighting and negotiating over claims to Bosnia, whose declaration of independence sparked a 3 1/2-year war, Tudjman and Milosevic proved essential to Western peace efforts to end that conflict. In 1995, they signed a U.S.-negotiated peace accord, along with Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic.

Richard Holbrooke, the American architect of the peace accord negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, and now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, got to know the former Yugoslavia’s leaders well as he twisted their arms.

He saw Tudjman as a man with a “deep hatred for Muslims and a dream to unite all Croats in one country, under one flag and with him as the leader.” Croatia is predominantly Catholic. In his 1998 book “To End a War,” Holbrooke described Tudjman as “haughty and arrogant” on his arrival at Dayton.

But Holbrooke was surprised by Tudjman’s kindness and apparent friendliness toward Milosevic, a rival Tudjman despised but with whom he would cut the crucial deals that ended Bosnia’s war.

Though he played a role in negotiating peace for Bosnia, controversy over war crimes committed during this decade’s Balkan conflicts clung to Tudjman. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia complained this summer to the U.N. Security Council that Tudjman’s government was refusing to cooperate with investigations into war crimes committed during the former Yugoslav federation’s disintegration.

And Serbs accuse Tudjman of carrying out what they said was the largest act of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslav federation: As many as 200,000 Serbs were driven from their homes in Croatia’s Krajina region in August 1995. Croats argue that the Serbs left voluntarily after losing the war.

Human rights monitors from the European Union and other organizations later reported evidence that Croatian forces committed atrocities during their Krajina offensive, which was code-named “Operation Storm.”

Agim Ceku, an artillery captain in the former Yugoslavia’s national army who defected to the Croatian forces and rose to the rank of brigadier general, was one of the masterminds of Operation Storm, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported this summer. Ceku later became commander of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army--which has since been disbanded--in Kosovo, a province of Serbia.

For two such bitter enemies, Tudjman and Milosevic got along well when it suited their interests. The most notorious example was their secret meeting at northern Serbia’s Karadjordjevo hunting lodge in March 1991, when the pair decided how they would carve up Bosnia between them.

Though the international tribunal in May indicted Milosevic in connection with the expulsion of ethnic Albanians and the warfare in Kosovo this spring, it never charged Tudjman. But the tribunal did go after men who answered to him.

During the trial of Croatian Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, tribunal prosecutor Gregory Kehoe cited the Milosevic-Tudjman meeting and laid out the evidence for concluding that the general “was a tool for implementation of political goals” articulated by the Croatian president.

The prosecutor entered as evidence one of Tudjman’s own history books, “Nationalism in Contemporary Europe,” in which the president claimed that Croatia had lost large tracts of land to Bosnia during the Turkish conquests of the region and during five centuries of Ottoman rule.

Kehoe also called to the witness stand Paddy Ashdown, then the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party. Ashdown testified that Tudjman revealed his plans for Bosnia over dinner in May 1995, when the two attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of World War II’s end in Europe.

Tudjman took a pen and drew a line through Bosnia, dividing it between Serbian and Croatian control, with Muslims living under the Croats. The prosecutor entered Ashdown’s napkin as an exhibit.

The tribunal in The Hague hasn’t handed down a verdict in Blaskic’s trial, which passed the three-year mark in June. But one of his defense attorneys, Anto Nobilo, insisted that the claims of a conspiracy between Tudjman and Milosevic to split Bosnia were nothing more than speculation and rumors.

In addition to his wife and three children, Tudjman is survived by at least five grandchildren.

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Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.