Croatian President on PR offensive

Embattled leader, Stipe Mesic, talks to Dominic Hipkins in Zagreb about his country's struggle to regain respectability.

Supporters of Stipe Mesic, President of Croatia, refer to their Head of State by his first name: not from disrespect they say, but affection for his informal style

But fellow countrymen, hardliners furious at his unqualified support for co-operation with the Hague Tribunal, just call him a traitor. Despite domestic disputes, Mesic will address the Scottish Parliament on Thursday and pay a visit to Edinburgh castle.

Before leaving on a four-day state visit to the UK that begins today, the President invited me to his hill-top residence in the capital Zagreb.

"We want to strengthen co-operation on the economy and I expect the support of Great Britain in supporting our strategic goals - membership of the European Union and Nato," he says, aiming to boost relations with a country few Croats feel much gratitude towards.

Mesic admits this attitude stems partly from Britain's reluctance to support Croatia's bloody struggle for independence a decade ago.

"Certain circles in the British political establishment didn't recognise that Yugoslavia could not be held together," he recalls.

But Mesic argues that British-backed Tito-era Yugoslavia, not the Serb-dominated structure propagated by Milosevic, played a positive role.

In a symbolic move the Croatian President is set to meet relatives of Fitzroy Maclean, the special operative sent by Churchill to help the anti-Nazi guerrilla war waged by Tito's communist partisans.

It's a moment certain to infuriate Croatia's unrepentant extreme nationalist movement, openly voicing nostalgia for the puppet entity established in 1941 by home-grown Ustasha fascists. The regime liquidated tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats. Sympathetic sentiment for this unsavoury era grew during the autocratic reign of Mesic's predecessor, the late independence leader, Franjo Tudjman.

Western diplomats believe Mesic represents the beginning of a new era for the Balkans although nobody alive, or at large, has endured the fall of Yugoslavia and returned to power like him.

The last head of the rotating Yugoslav presidency, Mesic was also the first prime minister following multi-party elections in Croatia. But after steering the country through its initial baptism of fire, he later resigned in disgust at "Tudjman's policy to divide Bosnia."

Mesic accuses his former mentor of coveting part of neighbouring Bosnia, and conniving with his apparent rival Milosevic in a cynical territorial carve-up. "It was the wrong policy and left Croatia isolated."

Silenced on the side-lines until Tudjman's death vacated the presidency two years ago, pundits were astonished by his surprise come-back until voters, especially the young, warmed to Mesic's down-to-earth style. His subsequent victory brought Croatia in from the cold.

Residing in a modest town centre flat, Mesic jokes that he has held every job except that of bishop. But the quietly spoken 67-year-old is serious in facing those who could drag Croatia back towards a Balkans quagmire.

Last week Mesic praised human rights activists as "true fighters for a democratic Croatia." The next day 200 far-right demonstrators in the central town of Slunj attacked NGO workers protesting against a statue honouring an icon of Croatia's fascist past.

The President earlier condemned the local authority's decision to erect the monument. Offensives to liberate rebel-held chunks of land in 1995 drove out 200,000 resident Serbs. Now around half have come back. "Many of these people were victims of the war… everyone has the right to return," he asserts.

But in traumatised regions - radicalised by conflict and dire economic conditions - the President's bridge-building towards Croatia's Serb minority makes him unwelcome.

After receiving abuse during a recent wreath-laying ceremony at Vukovar, the eastern city reduced to rubble in 1991 by the Yugoslav National Army, Mesic dismissed his hecklers as "war profiteers defending privileges they were never entitled to."

For Mesic, taunts questioning his patriotism were especially wounding, but he adds: "if those people applauded me, I would have to think hard why."

Mesic gave testimony against a former Serb mayor of Vukovar, "who did nothing to prevent massacres" but also helped convict Tihomir Blaskic, an ethnic Croat jailed for 45 years after perpetrating atrocities against Bosnian Muslims.

Many Croats protested at the severity of the sentence but Mesic, trained in law, regards the Hague as "a fair court."

In the UK he is expected to give a speech on global terror networks, aware of British concern at the link Bosnian Croat extremists have forged with dissident Irish Republican terrorists.

Explosives used to deadly effect at Omagh and the missile lobbed at MI6 HQ were both traced back to the Balkans.

"It is possible this issue will be raised during the talks in London," he concedes. In a country bemused that it has fallen behind Romania in the race to join the European Union, the best chance to leapfrog the EU queue may lie in the hands of this diminutive martial arts enthusiast.

In a career defined by struggle, the battle for Europe may prove the last great challenge to test the nerve and guile of Croatia's President.

"Milosevic was sure history was written by victors," he says.

Stipe Mesic may now reflect that history's survivors actually have the final say.