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Croatia's President Dies

President Franjo Tudjman
AP
President Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia to independence from former Yugoslavia but was assailed for nationalist policies that helped fuel the war in Bosnia, has died, Croatian state television announced Saturday. He was 77.

The announcement came at a special 2 a.m. newscast and did not specify the cause or time of death for the leader, hospitalized since Nov. 1.

"The president of Croatia, the founder of the independent Croatian state, has died," the announcement said.

Tudjman had been hospitalized since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery Nov. 1. He had received medical treatment in Washington, in 1996, for what U.S. sources said was stomach cancer. But Tudjman denied that, and his medical team in Zagreb said he had been treated for an ulcer and swollen lymph nodes.

Croats have been living without Tudjman since last month's hospitalization. He was effectively stripped of his powers on Nov. 26, when Constitutional Court declared him temporarily unfit to rule.

Parliament Speaker Vlatko Pavletic now wields Tudjman's authority, and new presidential elections are to be held within 60 days, soon after Jan. 3 parliamentary elections. Pavletic told the nation in a special telecast "the big heart of president Franjo Tudjman ceased to beat."

Appearing along with members of the Cabinet, all dressed in black, Pavletic called on the people to carry on Tudjman's legacy.

"Let's not suppress our sorrow," he said solemnly. "Let's not stop our tears, but let us stay upright, as President Tudjman always did, ready to continue building Croatia to Tudjman's pride, but measured upon each man of this country."

Tudjman leaves a mixed legacy.

Once the youngest general in communist Yugoslavia's army, he became the first president of independent Croatia, revered by many Croats for establishing statehood in 1991. But he displayed a disregard for democracy, a strong dislike of Muslims and Serbs, and a lust for power and Croat nationalism that led him to suppress dissent and opposition.

In striving to create an ethnically pure Croatia and to control the Croat part of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tudjman contributed to the three-and-a-half year war in Bosnia.

Yet unlike his Yugoslav counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, he achieved his principal goals -- an independent Croatia bordered by a weakened Bosnian neighbor -- without incurring the severe international condemnation and sanctions which hobbled the government in Belgrade.

Nurturing his reputation as the father of the nation, Tudjman retained his virtual one-man rule to the end, despite a reputation for corruption, cronyism and inefficiency that plagued his ruling Croatian Democratic Union.

Tudjman was born May 14, 1922, to a poor farming family in the northwestern Croatian village of Veliko Trgovisce.

At age 19, as World War II Europe, he joined the Communist partisans fighting the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime. After the war, he was promoted to the Ygoslav Army general staff in Belgrade.

In 1960, when he was 38, Tudjman was promoted to general in the Yugoslav army, but he left the military two years later to study history, and eventually headed the Institute for the History of the Workers' Movement. Tudjman began turning from communism to nationalism during this period.

In 1981, he was sentenced to jail for three years and banned from public activity for speaking out against the Yugoslav communist system.

He returned to public prominence in 1989, when he formed his party.

Tapping into rising nationalist sentiment, Tudjman was elected president in May 1990 in the first multiparty elections in Croatia, then still a Yugoslav republic. He was helped by voters' fears of the growing Serb nationalism Milosevic was fostering in Serbia and the Serb-populated regions of Croatia.

Tudjman proclaimed Croatia's independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia in June 1991. The move prompted a rebellion by the country's Serbs, who also were angered by Tudjman's revival of Ustasha symbols to promote Croat nationalism.

The rebellion triggered a six-month war in which at least 10,000 people were killed. Serb rebels, backed by the Yugoslav army, seized a third of the country, territory that Tudjman's forces would recapture only four years later.

In 1992 Tudjman turned his attention to Bosnia, backing Croats there who wanted to break away from the multi-ethnic state and join with Croatia.

That idea brought him into strange symbiosis with his greatest political foe, Milosevic.

The two leaders shared a goal of dividing Bosnia. Many believe they agreed to do so at a secret meeting in April 1991 in Karadjordjevo in northern Serbia.

After agreeing to an alliance with Bosnian Muslims, Croat troops drove Serb forces from Croatian territory in 1995. When the war-ending Dayton accord was signed later in the year, a Muslim-Croat Federation was declared for 51 percent of Bosnia. Despite Tudjman's pledges to help foster peace, many accused him of pursuing expansionist aims in Bosnia and of fomenting unrest among Bosnian Croats still bent on uniting with Zagreb.

At home, Tudjman's popularity steadily faded in his final years, with most Croats more impoverished than at the start of his tenure. At the same time, his rule created a new elite, mostly Tudjman's associates and favorite businessmen, rumored to have gotten rich through unorthodox, if not illegal, means.

While pledging democracy, Tudjman in fact imposed one-man rule. His word was final in Parliament, the judiciary and even the hiring and firing of sports coaches.

Tudjman is survived by his wife Ankica, a daughter and two sons. Information on funeral services was not immediately available.