Only in the Balkans: Tudjman's Biographer Tells All

By Julia Gorin
Sunday, 12 Dec 2010

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Julia Gorin traces the bizarre and darkly humorous saga of Franjo Tudjman's biography-that-never was. Science fiction writer Joe Tripician, hired by the Zagreb government in 1997 to be the official biographer of the Croatian President, reveals all about the incredible offer he could not refuse.

You’re a sci-fi writer. In fact, you’re a humorous sci-fi writer, the only book under your belt being The Official Alien Abductee’s Handbook. You’re one of those broke, recently divorced, 40-something New York writer/producer/director/playwright types who’s managing to stay afloat by maxing out credit cards and filling up on appetizers at art openings while trying to figure out which girlfriend to move in with after your impending eviction. That’s Joe Tripician in 1997. “So when a job came by that looked too good to be true, I took it,” he writes in the early pages of Balkanized at Sunrise: How a Sci-Fi Author Was Recruited to Keep a President from a War Crimes Indictment. Thanks to which we have this gem of a book.

Tripician is spared his destitute fate by an angel from hell in the form of Croatia’s U.S. cultural attache — film director Jakov Sedlar — an introduction made by his Long Island doctor (and pal of local mobsters), Tony. Naturally, this “Leni Riefenstahl of Croatia” (as he’s known in Croatian cultural circles) had already made a film attempting to exonerate the notorious WWII Catholic Archbishop Stepinac, who presided over Croatia’s genocide of close to a million Orthodox Serbs and 75% of the country’s Jews. Indeed, any creative project of use to Croatia’s national interests, and Jakov had made it — and recruited Martin Sheen to the cause.

Jakov taps the obscure sci-fi writer Tripician to write the official biography of Franjo Tudjman, Croatia’s wartime president, for American consumption; he is told HarperCollins is publishing.

There are some things that Tripician already knows about Tudjman, such as his book Horrors of War (or Wasteland of History, depending on the translation) — in which Tudjman goes on about Jews “helping run Jasenovac,” which Tripician recognizes as the “Croatian Auschwitz.” Before giving his final answer, then, the author wants to do some additional research on Tudjman, a process he describes thus: "With each atrocity a blister appears in my mouth, followed by another, and another, until they fight each other for space. After a while I name them for areas with the most war crimes: Gospic, Ahmici, Stupni Do, Krajina…"

He tries to reject the assignment, telling Jakov to hire a PR firm. But Jakov insists, and Joe is after all penniless. So he demands full creative control. “Yeah, of course, Joe. We give you.” The first $10,000 check arrives, and so Joe pumps himself up for the project. He is looking forward to having access to “all the resources of the Croatian government, and free rein to write the official biography of its sitting president, Franjo Tudjman, the man who came out the big winner in the recent war in former-Yugoslavia, the man both vilified as a neo-fascist, and praised as a freedom-fighter.”

First, Joe buys books. Books about how “America aided Tudjman in the war, pushed him to forge an alliance with the Bosnian Muslims in the fight against the Serbs, looked the other way while Croatia imported arms from Iran, deployed some 30,000 troops to NATO’s peace-keeping operation….”

That’s where Sunrise immediately distinguishes itself. Indeed, all this information which is so little-known even today was available in 1997, and Tripician had the diligence to find it. Unfortunately, he’s still under the impression that 200,000 died in the Bosnian war, though the updated figure stands at around 100,000. But he can be forgiven this much, especially since he offers a glimpse into the workings of the rabid Croatian diaspora when the second $10,000 check arrives. It’s drawn from the bank account of an Italian restaurant in Queens. As Joe explains: “In addition to directing government-financed films, Jakov is a master in raising money from the Croatian diaspora, the ferociously loyal group of Croatian patriots whose $5,000 and $10,000 donations also helped import arms into their homeland during the war.”

Joe hires one of them as a research assistant. “A young patriotic son of Croatian emigrants,” George had traveled to Croatia during the war and served as an interpreter and press agent for the Bosnian Croats as well as a driver for visiting diplomats. An all-around too-useful guy whom Joe starts to wonder if he can trust. Joe summarizes George’s annoyance with his countrymen’s obviousness: “They don’t get that you don’t let rightwing, Sieg Heil-saluting extremists align themselves with your party and expect the US to understand. You don’t rebury the bones of Ustasha leaders alongside their victims and expect world leaders (except for Germany) to attend the ceremony. You don’t honor indicted war criminals by decorating them as war heroes and expect recognition in the UN.”

Wrong on almost all counts, as history has proved: You can get away with it all. But thank you for the uncommon mention of such things. Indeed, it’s Tripician’s innate fair-mindedness that contributes to his almost comically constant misgivings throughout the book: “Do I really think I can take Jakov’s money and turn in a fawning hagiography without becoming a whore?…[A]m I stupidly putting myself at risk? If word gets out that I’m at work on a negative portrait of the president, will I be labeled an enemy spy, targeted for assassination, tortured or, worse — forced to refund Jakov’s advance?” George also tells him to watch out for the women in Zagreb, who are all five-foot-ten and dangerous.

Soon Joe’s Balkans odyssey begins and he is off to Croatia. He finds a populace gripped either by nationalism, or by fear of not being nationalist enough for the ubiquitous loyalists of the non-dictator dictator, the neo-fascist democrat Tudjman. In 1997 even a Croatian teenager could tell you, “You have to write what they tell you to write,” a reference to Tudjman’s tight control of the media and widespread political surveillance and repression — which Joe was warned about. Meanwhile, he baffles one contact after another for being the chosen joe to write a book on Tudjman — including the skeptical U.S. embassy spokesman who says, “This is a most interesting project, Joe. So little correct information about Tudjman makes it to the Croatian people; so little information about Croatia makes it to the States.”

Before long, a long-legged Croatian vixen in need of a U.S. embassy job attaches herself to him (at arm’s length), and quizzes his “understanding” of the region to see how well his point of view is Croatianizing. In another funny encounter, he finds himself in the back of a helicopter with a pair of rabbis whom the Croatian government is wooing to help with its public image. One of them offers, “I met him [Tudjman], and I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi, or in any way sympathetic to Nazism. I didn’t see any of that.”

Never mind Tudjman’s Holocaust-minimizing (“It was 900,000, not six million!”) or his revival of Nazi-era currency, symbols, and school and street names — or the demolition of Holocaust monuments and the 1996 appointment of a senior Ustasha official to ambassador (plus restoring 13 Ustasha army officers to their original ranks). Never mind all that — apparently Tudjman was supposed to call the rabbi a kike to his face to convince him. They’re in the helicopter to go to a mass grave in the town of Vukovar, whose story the author relates with all the attendant distortions and omissions, such as the Serbs killing “300 men in a hospital” — without mentioning that these were Croatian soldiers who disguised themselves as patients after shooting from inside the hospital and endangering the actual patients.

But the author is working from the disadvantage of a very entrenched popular mythology that’s hard to get around. This bank of misinformation strikes again when he tries to peg down Bosnian-Croat president Mate Boban. “Boban never had the opportunity of killing as many civilians as his Bosnian Serb brothers in Christ. That personal best was achieved by Radovan Karadzic….”

Understandably, in 1997 one was forced to operate from the premise of the “official truth” of Bosnia, so it might be asking too much for someone to have already figured out what Karadzic was or wasn’t, and what did or didn’t happen on his watch and which side was really behind it. Still, one doubts that the author is currently following the second-most-unwatched Trial of the Century (Milosevic’s being the first), to see how accurate his trite assessment of Karadzic is. Nonetheless — and despite also buying into the widely held but inverted premise that the Serbs were the aggressors — the author gives the subject fairer treatment than what one is used to.

Tripician also operates under the misconception that the Bosnian Muslims were innocent, attributing virtually no war crimes or concentration camps to them — and that “Sniper Alley” could only mean “Serbian Sniper Alley.” Which is how we get a typical devoid-of-context paragraph such as: "August 28, 1995: Another mortar hit the Sarajevo market, killing 38 people this time. President Clinton pressed NATO into running bombing raids against Serbian military targets. After 16 days, this bombing campaign finally pushed the Serbs to negotiate a settlement." A little more diligence and Tripician might have learned that even at the time, these mortars’ origins were questionable, and since then they’ve been demonstrated to have come from the Bosnian side. To know this, one could read a single day’s transcripts from the unwatched Trial of the Century.

The only time Tripician gets an inkling that the Muslims are ever up to anything is when he happens upon a political gathering at a mosque in Sarajevo, which ends up being his most menacing encounter. And we do get at least some acknowledgment of Muslim violence in the conflict: "These are the same extremists whose mujahideen soldiers committed their own share of atrocities against Serbs and Croats in Bosnia. They are connected to murder, rape, brutal mistreatment, and one barbaric ritual beheading." (One wonders which barbaric beheading — singular tense — the author is referring to. Just off the cuff, is it this oneor one of these?) Tripician attributes the violence to “extremists,” but we learn that the other woman he falls for — a Bosnian — became a single mother when her husband came home from the war unrecognizable after committing “his share of atrocities.” In other words, it didn’t take an extremist.

Compensating for such assuming blunders, Sunrise has plenty of payoffs, such as the deadpan delivery of the contradiction of Croatianism: “In 1989, Tudjman established the first democratic party in Croatia, and reintroduced Ustasha flags and symbols to the streets of Zagreb….” Of course, two paragraphs later we get: “Under Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (’the Butcher of the Balkans’), both Croatia and the more homogeneous Slovenia were labeled fascists, and, for a time after the war started, the label stuck.” Here the author falls into the usual trap of attributing to “Milosevic” documented facts which the author himself has already authenticated two paragraphs earlier. (Incidentally, Slovenia had the highest proportional number of Nazis collecting pensions from Germany in the 90s. Nor is its “homogeneity” by chance, since Slovenia is a country that, with overwhelming public support, revoked citizenship and all rights associated with it from minorities soon after the illegal secession. Only Hungarians and Italians were exempted.)

Indeed, what sort of “strongman” was Milosevic when he told the Croatian Serbs not to react to the sudden and illegal secession by their historical slaughterers who would now govern them? Such a strongman and nationalist was he that Croatia’s famous “Captain Dragan” tried to assassinate him for abandoning his fellow Serbs. It’s a far cry from Belgrade “inciting the Serb minority to rebel,” as Tripician predictably has it.

What is refreshing, however, is that he casts an almost equally suspicious eye on Croatian designs, assessing that Tudjman was indeed looking to expand Croatia. Such little-seen terms as Greater Croatia, Croatian paramilitary, Croatian Mafia (and the government’s intimate relationship with it), as well as “war crimes” and “ethnic purity” being associated with someone other than Serbs are what — in addition to the book’s personalized charm — make it stand out. He also has the savvy to note that Bosnia was an “ultimately avoidable” war, though he doesn’t explain why. (Because the three sides had already agreed to a peace deal, until the West stepped in.)

Tripician tries to get to the bottom of whether Tudjman is really a communist or a fascist, or a communist-turned fascist, or a fascist-turned-communist-turned-fascist, while allowing that he was undeniably supported by fascists and for sure would have gone to the Hague had he not died in 1999 (indeed, the Tribunal was taking its time handing down both his and the Bosnian president’s indictments).

The author is acutely aware of the Balkans paradox in which painting “a complete picture of Tudjman without lauding him or vilifying him means I can please no one…In former Yugo, taking a middle-road position doesn’t win you any friends…” And so, ever navigating the tightrope of finding a story, finding the truth, steering clear of becoming a paid propagandist/mouthpiece/rehabilitationist, he does do Tudjman the favor of putting himself in his shoes — and ticks off the man’s achievements from a Croatian standpoint:

…He wagered his country and his people on his vision of an expanded Croatia, and was able to build a credible army almost overnight. By bullying and manipulating his Bosnian Croats he was able to co-opt them, and use the Croat-Muslim alliance to fend off the Serbs. He also kept the Muslims at bay and unbalanced through his close negotiations with Milosevic…And he placated [human rights] demands by sacrificing Boban.

In the course of his adventure, the author briefly meets his subject and annoys him with a question about his grip on the media and another about his knowledge of concentration camps, plus one about the ten Bosnian Croats offered up to the Hague for war crimes the day after Croatia gets a $40 million IMF credit.

More entertaining is the author’s interview with the walking ego named Richard Holbrooke, in which the first question comes from Holbrooke: “Did Galbraith take credit for the Erdut Agreement? He can’t, because that was mine.”

The promise of Balkan intrigue is just barely delivered on, making the odyssey more of a hilarious escapade. Throughout, Joe imagines all the Balkan-style dangers he could fall prey to but usually falls short of, and so the tale ends up being as funny for what doesn’t happen as for what does. So suspicious is he of everyone and everything concerned with this assignment that his eyebrows get raised when he finds that, night after night, no one sends prostitutes to his hotel room to bribe his loyalty.

It’s Balkans reading that won’t hurt your head, and possibly the cutest Balkans story an American has told. As well, Tripician mercifully keeps to a minimum the requisite ruminations on man’s inhumanity to man and what “separates us from similar barbarity.” (Nothing, if you look at our 1999 bombardment of civilians in our Kosovo misadventure.) In one of his more profound thoughts, the author compares himself to American foreign policy, which “habitually resembles nothing more than the wanderlust of an aging womanizer.”

With just a minimum of depth, even a lay American can start to “get” the Balkans from this great little commercial piece of writing which one won’t be able to resist reading in a single day.

Appendix to the above review:

Balkans enthusiasts will appreciate what comes after the book is over, in “Addendum 2,” which lists the objections by Tripician’s handlers to the product he turns in. They also happen to be a showcase of his most incisive assessments:

…Serbs are presented as a majority in the anti-fascist movement, and Chetnicks as yet another anti-fascist group…The draft is overburdened with the paradigm of Ustasha: Serbs feared new Ustashas; Tudjman partially adopted Ustasha ideology; Tudjman was supported politically and financially by Ustasha émigrés; Hercegovci are still Ustashas today; Serbs did to Muslims in this conflict the same that Croats did to Serbs during the NDH; there is a historic alliance between Croatia and Germany…From the manuscript we take a couple of quotes:

– Croatian checkered coat of arms even today evokes horror in the hearts of WWII survivors (p. 7)

– Ustasha reign of terror is virtually unparalleled in modern history (p.12)

– Stepinac, the archbishop of Zagreb, supported Ustashas and blessed Pavelic (p. 13)
– The difference was that Croatian liberals saw the injustice, but also a danger in the declaration of independence without addressing and finding a solution for the worries and fears of the Serb minority….(p. 57)

– As one Hercegovac explained: “Here only three things grow: snakes, rocks and Ustasha.” (p. 58)
– However, the propaganda in Croatian media was equally as fierce (p. 60)
The new nationalist government took a direct control over radio, television and principal print media….In the schoolbooks all stories about the Partisans and the anti-fascist movement were deleted…. (p. 64)

– Fear and hate, imported by extremists on both sides… (p. 73)

– If we say that Serbs returned ethnic cleansing to life, then we can say that Croats perfected it. (p. 83)
– Both Serbs and Croats blocked food delivery to Bosnians (p. 104) [The author seems aware that Bosnians did
at least as much of that.]

– Majority [of POW’s in B&H] were held by Bosnian Croats (p. 112)
– During ‘The Storm,’ Croatian soldiers looted and burned more than 20,000 Serbian homes. (p. 133)

Final note: Some years after his trip, the author learns of audio tapes released in 2000 which reveal “conversations Tudjman had with his aides that disclosed his direct knowledge and cover-up of Croatian war crimes.” Imagine if Tripician found out that since then the Hague has released documents including a transcript — discovered by Hague observer Andy Wilcoxson last year — in which “Tudjman is planning the operation [Storm] together with his top military brass…’We have to inflict such blows that the Serbs will to all practical purposes disappear.’ …Tudjman explains that, for the benefit of propaganda in the international community, leaflets should be given to Serbian civilians saying, ‘We are appealing to you not to withdraw…This means giving them a way out, while pretending to guarantee civil rights etc.’”