Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I have spent a week at different corners of Europe. I began the week in Zagreb, the elegant Austro-Hungarian Capital of Croatia and finished it in Tallinn, the Capital of dynamic little Estonia.

Zagreb is an intriguing city. The Gornji Grad and the Kaptol districts retain the street plan of their mediaeval foundation, with a street, the Krvavi Most ("Bloody Bridge"), commemorating the pitched battles that used to take place between the young men of both districts. Around the corner is Tkalciceva, a pedestrian street of bars and restaurants where I recall meeting soldiers on leave from the battlefields of the early 1990's. The edginess of that time has given way to a more gentle, tourist friendly coziness. Around the foot of the Mountain of which these two mediaeval districts form the foothills lies the elegant boulevards of the Austro-Hungarian lower town. Though not so visited as Prague or Budapest, yet the City of Zagreb retains an elegant and cosmopolitan air.

Croatia has had a bad press in the UK. The image of the former leader, Franjo Tudjman, was harsh, and not helped by many of his actions in Bosnia. Nevertheless, in Croatia his memory is respected, although no longer uncritically. Despite Tudjman's image as a right wing authoritarian, he too had been a Communist Partizan and Croatia retains much of the systems of the Communist era. The reform pace has sometimes been erratic and much still remains to change before the country can take her place in the European Union. The country is Conservative and looks to Austria and the Christian Democrats for many of its models of how to do things- the pace of change is now steady, rather than spectacular.

While British-Croatian relations have improved from the deep freeze that was their initial state, they remain correct, rather than warm. My own personal relationship with Croats is extremely friendly and, not for the first time, I wonder about the failures of British foreign policy. We were far too close to Serbia in the early 1990s to see the true nature of Milosevic. Perhaps when the UK comes under attack for her policies in the region we should not forget that Douglas Hurd, after stepping down from being foreign secretary, joined the board of a bank that- within six months- gained a very large privatisation mandate in Serbia. This provided sufficient funds for the Milosevic regime to allow Serbia to continue to prosecute the war for several more years. At best, the reputation of the United Kingdom was damaged by carelessness. There are some who would call it corruption.

Either way, Croatia does not forget.

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