Interview 03 May 17

Propaganda Trip: Why Franjo Tudjman’s Biographer Rebelled

Twenty years on, US author Joe Tripician recalls his bizarre experience of trying to write a state-funded biography of 1990s Croatian President Franjo Tudjman - and how his conscience derailed the project.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Joe Tripician. Photo: Facebook/Joe Tripician

“He said: ‘You’ll have to change the headline.’ I said: ‘What’s wrong with the title ‘In Tito’s Shadow’? It’s very descriptive.’ He again said: ‘You should not mention anything from former Communist times.’ I said: ‘Well, that’s going to make the book very short.’”

Joe Tripician is telling BIRN about the reaction of the Croatian controversial film director Jakob Sedlar to his manuscript of the official biography the US author wrote about Croatia’s 1990s wartime President Franjo Tudjman - and the Croatian’s displeasure at the fact that the title mentioned former Communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

Tripician, 63, is a man of many talents in show business and publishing – a producer, writer, screenwriter, film director, songwriter, playwright and performer – who was hired in 1997 by Sedlar, Croatia’s cultural attaché in New York at that time, to write the official biography of strongman leader Tudjman.

He met Sedlar in early 1997 when Tripician’s company produced an animated map of Croatia for Sedlar’s travelogue.

Later the same year, he helped Sedlar make the documentary ‘Tudjman’, which depicts the Croatian president’s life as a “Croatian George Washington”. Although Tripician is named as a co-director, he claims he barely worked on the film.

“I’ve looked at the script and I made some corrections and that was it. And he came months later and said ‘here it is’, and I was shocked to see my name on it,” he says, laughing.

Sedlar was then assigned by the Croatian government to find an author to write a biography that would improve the international image of Tudjman, who was often criticised for human rights violations and issues with media freedom after the 1990s war.

After Tripician and Sedlar agreed on a contract for the biography – $40,000 and full editorial control for the writer – Tripician embarked for Croatia.

“They were doing a whole campaign to build up the tourism and the economy, but also, specifically, to keep Tudjman out of [the UN war crimes court in] The Hague. That was the reason for this book,” he explains.

This was never directly stated, he adds, “but it was damn clear”.

Tudjman and war crimes

Screenshot from Tripician's interview with President Tudjman.

Tripician visited Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, meeting various officials, journalists, activists, war criminals and others. As a result, he based a lot of the biography on Tudjman’s early life, as well as his career in socialist Yugoslavia.

Tudjman went from WWII war veteran to army general and historian of the workers’ movement to one of the most notable Croatian dissidents, and was imprisoned for his nationalist views.

In the original manuscript of the biography, Tripician also mentioned his alleged role in the 1990s war in Bosnia and the war crimes committed there.

Tripician said that one of the officials who pointed him in that direction was Vladislav Pogarcic, a close associate of the president of the Croat-led 1990s statelet Herzeg-Bosna, Mate Boban.

He claimed that Pogarcic said he had documents that implied that the commands for Bosnian Croat troops “came from higher up” and led to Tudjman - potentially implicating him in war crimes committed by the troops.

However Pogarcic told BIRN that he “never told him anything like that since it’s a clear confabulation”. He added that he could not have had such documents, since he was responsible for foreign diplomacy.

‘Clash of civilisations’

Tripician talked to former Herzeg-Bosna Prime Minister Jadranko Prilic – currently on trial at the UN court in The Hague – who praised Tudjman’s wartime leadership.

But he also talked to US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a key figure during the Bosnian peace negotiations, who was critical of Tudjman’s role in the war.

“Tudjman, as long as I knew him, never kept a single promise he made about Bosnia,” Tripician said that Holbrooke told him.

Sedlar: The biography was ‘no good’

In an article in 2011 about Tripician’s experience researching the Tudjman biography, Sedlar dismissed the US author’s efforts.

“If his book was any good, someone would have been published it by now,” Sedlar said in the article, which was published in Croatian daily Vecernji list.

“Everything was done with good intentions, but badly executed. This doesn’t mean that Tripician is a bad writer, but he wrote this book badly,” he added.

 

In the biography, Tripician wanted to tackle the existing Croatian narrative about the 1990s war and Tudjman’s role in it, which he thought was one-sided.

While writing it, Tripician spent two mornings with Tudjman in his presidential residence in Zagreb. The first morning, after asking Tudjman about his background, the Croatian leader “talked non-stop for 35 minutes”.

Tripician then decided to be more direct in his questions and confronted Tudjman with the war crimes committed by the Bosnian Croats – some of whom were extradited to The Hague the same year the interview took place.

He explained that he “wouldn’t be able to live with myself” if he had not asked about the crimes.

Tudjman responded nervously to Tripician’s question about the Croat indictees: “I definitely am in favour of and support investigation of all such cases, but… I am not in favour of regarding in the same terms those who caused the aggression [Serb soldiers], who caused all these tragedies, who jeopardised both the existence of Croatia and the life of its citizens, and those people [Croat soldiers] who during various operations could not curb, could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate,” he said.

Tripician says that Tudjman’s perception of the war in Bosnia was very much influenced by the book ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, written by American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.

“In Bosnia, it’s not only a case of three different ethnic communities, three peoples, but also three different civilisations. And this fact underlies the profound conflict which took place and which led to all the tragic experiences which we had so far,” Tudjman told him.

A problem with propaganda

Scene from Tripician's one-man show 'Balkanized at Sunrise'. Photo: Facebook/Balkanized at Sunrise.

As the book project continued, the author ran into more problems.

As well as demanding that everything related to Tudjman’s communist past was removed, Sedlar, in the name of the government, told Tripician to remove anything about Bosnian war crimes.

Tripician said he refused to write “propaganda pieces” and said he would not make the requested changes.

“I tried to convince Jakov [Sedlar] to include more of the things I wrote. In that way the book would be more authentic, it wouldn’t be dismissed as propaganda. But he didn’t buy that,” he says through his laughter.

He lost all contact with Sedlar, and the Tudjman biography was never published.

Tripician is honest in explaining his reasons for taking the job in the first place. He initially accepted to write the biography because he was “deep in debt”, as well as being recently divorced and therefore “interested in meeting women who might be impressed with the American passport”.

“I knew back then there were some good things written about Tudjman and that there were some bad things written about him. So I thought, why do I care? I am impartial,” he explains.

However, he says he “started to grow a conscience” about what he was doing, after he spoke with people who went through the war.

In the end, Tripician decided to send all the documentation he gathered during his research to the Hague Tribunal.

His account of the whole Tudjman experience and his trip to Croatia and Bosnia was eventually published in 2010 in his own book, ‘Balkanized at Sunrise’, with a revised edition in 2016.

He also wrote a partly-fictionalised one-man show, which he performed using some of the videos taken during his trip.

Tripician says now that one of the people who had a special impact on him at the time was the veteran Croatian peace activist Vesna Terselic, with whose words he ended ‘Balkanized at Sunrise’.

“Each of us has our own piece of responsibility. Not of guilt,” Terselic is quoted as saying in the book. “And each of us has a part of the responsibility, which is connected with the amount of power we have. And each of us has some power. Maybe it’s a small amount, but it is some power.”

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