ZAGREB, Yugoslavia — Like the arsonist turned firefighter, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has set for himself the task of beating back the nationalist fires he stoked to win his republic's first multi-party election since World War II.
And whether the historically antagonistic Serbs and Croats: now the two most populous of Yugoslavia's half-dozen principal ethnic groups go to war for a fourth time this century may rest on whether Tudjman succeeds.
Opponents accuse Tudjman of mimicking Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in fueling national passions to such an extreme as to risk a civil war.
But Tudjman, a retired army general and the essence of military discipline, appears to have a healthy wariness of the nationalist fever that threatens Croatian democracy as well as Yugoslav peace.
At a recent public rally in the republican capital of Zagreb, called to rehabilitate a 19th-Century Croatian hero nudged to obscurity by postwar Communists, Tudjman appealed to a flag-waving, mostly young crowd numbering in the tens of thousands to be cautious.
Tudjman drew wild cheers from the crowd when, in a reference to what is perceived here as Serbian provocation, he vowed: "We will never capitulate to the forces against democracy." But he also warned against hotheadedness in a tense standoff with Serbs living in Croatia, explaining that world public opinion will crush the state that fires the first shot in an ethnic war.
"He knows the long-term costs of a short-term indulgence," a Western diplomat observed of Tudjman. The same official had six months earlier described the Croatian leader as "a raving nationalist."
The diplomat is just one of the foreign observers in Zagreb who say they have changed their views of Tudjman, whose 68 years have traced the erratic path of modern Croatian history.
A committed Communist partisan under Marshal Josip Broz Tito during World War II, Tudjman rose to the rank of general in the postwar power structure before becoming disillusioned with one-party government in the 1960s.
He turned to academia, earning a doctorate in history, and wrote books until his activities with a pro-democracy group called Maspok drew the ire of Tito's Communists.
In 1967, he was stripped of all his posts and expelled from the Communist Party. He was imprisoned twice for spreading "hostile propaganda," in 1972-74 and in 1981.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe last year inspired him to form the Croatian Democratic Union, the party he led to victory over the incumbent Communists last spring.
Among other moves, the married father of three grown children quickly lifted restraints on religious worship, which added to the adoration shown him by Croatia's devoutly Roman Catholic population.
In an interview at his presidential office in Zagreb's Old Town, Tudjman played down the significance of nationalist outbursts in Croatia and claimed that Serbs in his republic have nothing to fear should Croatia gain the independence it seeks.
Said Tudjman: "The task is to create normal conditions for Serbs and Croats in Croatia," where about 12% of the republic's 5 million people are Serbian. "We will do our utmost to see this is done."
However, Tudjman claimed, under the old system Croatians have often been discriminated against in their own republic. He cited a major factory employing 1,000 people of which only 12 are Croats. He also contended that the republic's police forces are still predominantly Serbian.
"We are not at all after any kind of discrimination against Serbs," the president insisted. But he charged that "it is unnatural" for Serbs to hold down three to six times the percentage of top posts as they represent in the republic's population.
Overlaying the ethnic conflict, which dates to when Serbs and Croats were the respective front lines of the Ottoman Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires, is the recently developed rift in political orientation as Yugoslavia gradually submits to multi-party democracy.
Serbia and the Yugoslav federal government, both headquartered in Belgrade, remain under monopoly Communist rule, while Croatia and Slovenia have held free elections this year.
Milosevic, head of Serbia's Communist Party, has sought to hold on to his absolute power by using it to reassert Serbian control over Albanians in the province of Kosovo and to demand autonomy for Serbian communities within Croatia.
Slovenia and Croatia have responded to Milosevic's flexing of the Serbian muscle by declaring their intention to break away from a Yugoslav federation that Serbs have always dominated.
Tudjman rode to victory in last spring's election by promising an end to federal control over Croatia, stirring up nationalist sentiment in the republic to a level unknown since the fanatical Ustasha regime that set up a fascist puppet state in 1941.