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New Croatian Head: Tough Days Ahead

February 9, 2000

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ In a rare peaceful power transfer in the Balkans, Croats have elected opponents of late President Franjo Tudjman to lead the government. Their hope: that genuine democracy will give Croatia higher living standards and an anchor in the Western world.

But a bright future is not just around the corner, acknowledged Stipe Mesic, who was chosen to be the country’s new president in Monday’s voting.

Mesic met Tuesday with the country’s new prime minister, Ivica Racan, to discuss how to end the economic corruption and political isolation that is a legacy of Tudjman’s nearly decade-long grip on power.

The new leadership will have to grapple with 20 percent unemployment, low wages and an economic policy that critics say was tainted by corruption that allegedly enriched Tudjman’s supporters. They also will have to live with their election promises to cooperate fully with the U.N.-sponsored war crimes tribunal and reduce support for Croats in neighboring Bosnia _ conditions for Croatia’s accession to Western bodies like the European Union and NATO.

``Major work is ahead of us,″ Mesic said in his first official statement following Monday’s election to succeed Tudjman, who died Dec. 10.

Racan, whose Cabinet is to present its new political and economic program to the parliament on Wednesday, said the situation ``is worse than we predicted.″

For now, however, most Croats seem happy with the mere fact that the Tudjman era _ marked by authoritarianism and nationalism _ is over.

``It’s important that we got rid of a system which, in nutshell, exploited us,″ said Vera Simic, a saleswoman. ``Now, there probably will be a lot of work, sweat and blood. But it seems that there won’t be tears.″

Western governments and most of Croatia’s neighbors welcomed the political change in parliament as well as the presidency. On Jan. 3, Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union lost its nine-year majority in parliament to a center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals.

In Washington, President Clinton congratulated Mesic, and called his election a turning point.

``It brings with it the promise of genuine democracy and a normal life for Croatia’s people, stronger ties between our two nations, and greater stability throughout southeast Europe,″ Clinton said in a statement.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the elections were a major step toward bringing Croatia into the Western European community.

The European Commission decided Tuesday to upgrade its Zagreb office to the level of permanent mission, indicating a boost in relations with Croatia.

Mesic said his major task was to ``do all″ to help integrate Croatia into Western institutions. Asked about the rate by which that could happen, he replied: ``Swiftly.″

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