Published in Nacional number 428, 2004-01-27

Autor: Berislav Jelinić


Hebrang's difficult character and intolerance will cost Sanader his government

Even before the elections, Hebrang gave every indication that his political intolerance could jeopardize the image of HDZ if that party took power.

Two months after HDZ won the elections, Andrija Hebrang, vice-president of the HDZ government and Health and Welfare Minister has turned into the most loathed person in the newly reformed HDZ party under Sanader.

Even before the November 2003 elections, Hebrang gave every indication, through his conservative and rigid statements, that his political intolerance could dramatically jeopardize the image of HDZ if that party took power. After new Premier Ivo Sanader formed his government and appointed Hebrang as Health and Welfare Minister, this was confirmed. “He will certainly seek revenge,” was the comment made for Nacional in early January following his appointment by a reputable Croatian physician who is well acquainted with Hebrang. In his recent moves, Hebrang has only acted to confirm the many fears by physicians that he will be taking revenge.

In the first days of power, Hebrang already began cleaning the ranks of the top people in the health system. Due to “incompatible opinions”, he replaced Nikica Gabrić, president of the management board of HZZO, the Croatian Health Insurance Institute, and he also announced that the other members of the board would also be replaced. He also announced that all the investments of the former government would be reviewed, he banned hospitals from procuring new equipment and he removed some 30 officials in various health care councils. In last week’s interview for Nacional, he accused his predecessor of bringing the entire health care system to the brink of collapse, and his stories about a massive crisis in the health care system have aroused reactions from those he has accused.

Andro Vlahušić, former Health Minister and Nikica Gabrić, until recently the top man in HZZO gave a press conference last Friday, refuting Hebrang’s claims. The accused Hebrang of creating a crisis without any foundation, only for the purposes of raising himself up as a saviour, and they stated that Hebrang had manipulated the figures, thus creating a phony image of the dramatic state of health care. They particularly resented him for not wanting to speak at all with any of the officials from the former government. Hebrang refused to appear in the highly watched HTV show “Forum”, where he was to have faced off with his opponents, and he has also avoided debates in other media.

It is as though he has decided only to appear in those places where he can be sure he will not have to face his rivals from his medical profession. Two weeks ago, he agreed to talk with Nacional, and last week he was a guest on Nova TV, where he went one step farther from criticizing his predecessors in the health care system. On Nova TV, he stated that President Stipe Mesić had degraded his position. Considering that this is an election year for the President, this could be the first sign of a large conflict between Stipe Mesić and HDZ.

Due to such comments, Hebrang has become the number one topic in many newspaper articles. Only in last Saturday’s issue of Jutarnji List, three articles were dedicated to Hebrang and the reactions to his comments, and the situation is similar in other printed media.

Several highly positioned physicians commented for Nacional back in early January that Hebrang would soon prove to be “the factor which will cause Sanader to lose power”. Though it is still too early to make assessments, it has already been shown that those HDZers were right when they recently told Nacional that Hebrang was a difficult and intolerant man, who would soon be in conflict with everyone around him due to his nature.

Andrija Hebrang was born on 27 January 1946 in Belgrade. His mother Olga Hebrang came from Pakrac, from the well-to-do Jewish family Strauss. Her parents saw to her education, and she learned to play piano, and to speak French and German and as a girl in the 1930’s, she joined the left-wingers and Communist party, read left-wing literature and finally joined the Partizan fight in World War II. As a Jew and active left-winger, she was even more threatened and on 12 December 1941, the Ustasha arrested her and she spent several months in prison at Pakrac, Stara and Nova Gradiška. Ten days after her arrest, fifty members of her immediate and extended family were put to death in camps at Stara Gradiška and Jasenovac.

Eleven months after the arrest of Olga Strauss, she was transferred from isolation in the Stara Gradiška camp to the prison at Nova Gradiška. Together with several other political prisoner, the Ustasha intended to exchange them for their people imprisoned in Partizan camps. In that exchange group was Andrija Hebrang, already at that time a well known Communist activist and leader, who had spent 12 years in prison for his political activities prior to World War II. The exchange was successful and the parents of today’s government vice-president headed towards Western Slavonia somewhere between Okučani and Caga, towards the Partizan forests where they continued in the battle for the Partizans.

Andrija Hebrang Sr., only days after their first meeting, proposed to Olga Strauss, who agreed to marry him after only one day of thinking it over. The father of Sanader’s Health Minister was than a mature man, 14 years older than Olga. According to her own confessions, at that time she saw an exceptionally attractive man in Hebrang, in whom she found a father, brother and sister, a replacement for her entire family. As a close collaborator to Josip Broz Tito, Hebrang asked his direct approval for the marriage. Tito approved the marriage after their three month separation, and Olga Strauss headed on foot from Papuk to Slunj for her Partizan wedding. Not long afterwards, Hebrang was appointed as head of the Croatian Communist Party, and the new couple spent the first days of their relatively normal married life in Otočac, which was liberated by the Partizans in the fourth offensive.

In January 1944, Hebrang was removed from his post as head of the Croatian Communist Party and was transferred to a high ranking post in the Communist Party, and upon the completion of the war, the couple moved to Belgrade. At first they lived in a humble flat on Palmotićeva Street before moving on party orders to a luxurious villa in the Dedinje neighbourhood. In that very short period, Andrija Hebrang was born as the second of three children.

Andrija Hebrang Jr. was only two when the tragedy of his parents began. His father was arrested in 1948 and became the victim of a set-up process by the Belgrade Udba, behind which stood the party faction led by Aleksander Ranković, Milovan Đilas and Edvard Kardelj. They accused him, without grounds, of being an Ustasha cooperant, and the construction of the accusation was created by General Mile Milatović.

Hebrang was killed around 1950, and the official version of the story was that he hung himself from a radiator in one of the Belgrade prisons, though there were no radiators in any of the prison cells. Even today it is unknown where his grave is, and his murder was a taboo topic for decades. Not even today are the details of his murder known, whether he was killed because Tito ordered his liquidation due to suspicious that he was Stalin’s mole in Tito’s government, or because he was a Communist with sentiment for Croatia or because he ended all ties with Bolshevism following his January 1945 visit to the USSR as a humane socialist and began to speak in support of preserving small business and the middle class as Industry Minister in Tito’s government.

At the time of his father’s arrest, two year old Andrija Hebrang spend ten days in house arrest with his mother, older sister Dunja and younger brother Branko in a small flat in Belgrade. On 17 May 1948, his mother Olga Hebrang was arrested and her children almost ended up in one of Belgrade’s children houses. Considering that Olga Hebrang was director of all the children’s houses in Belgrade up until her arrest, she was strongly opposed to the idea that her children live in one, and she succeeded in sending her children off to her sister Ilonka in Zagreb. Olga Hebrang went on to live another eight years of tragedy: she spent three years in isolation in the Belgrade prison Glavnjača, before being transferred to prisons in Požrevac and Slavonska Požega.

Decades later, in 1989, she herself calmly stated in an interview for the weekly Start, that this irreparably destroyed childhood for Andrija and her other children. “But I remember you!” exclaimed Andrija when he went to visit his mother as a boy, together with his aunt and brother and sister in the prison in Požarevac. The visit lasted for half and hour, and for the next four years, they had no idea as to whether or not Olga Hebrang was even alive. After she was transferred to the prison at Slavonska Požega, the children saw Olga Hebrang only once more before she was released on 10 October 1956, due to the severe poverty they were living in.

This was a dramatic period for Andrija Hebrang. In order to keep them from starving, the Jewish Community frequently gave the family packages of food and old clothing that had arrived from America. Ivan Krajačić, a former Partizan friend of his father Andrija Hebrang, arranged that they receive a small monthly contribution from the Republican Welfare Council. Veljko Drakulić, former Police Minister was caring for Andrija Jr. and his brother and sister. He frequently sent one of his officers over to see how the young Hebrangs were doing, what they had to eat and how they were doing in school. When it came time for Andrija Jr. to go to school, it was learned that he did not even have a birth certificate, as his parents had forgotten to request one be issued. He was accepted into school based on ties to Fredo Novačić, the principal of a school who had been a family friend of Olga Hebrang’s first husband.

When Olga was released from prison, Andrija Jr. was ten years old. He and his younger brother found it somewhat easier to adapt to their mother than Dunja did. They moved into an old house on Ljubljanica, then on the outskirts of Zagreb. Olga Hebrang did not speak to her children of her family tragedy, which they resented as they grew older. “The children had already had a difficult and destroyed childhood, so I didn’t want to further burden them with those stories. I encouraged them to study hard, to be involved in sports, to go on excursions, to have friends…,” commented Olga in Start magazine in 1989. The Hebrang drama continued over the coming years. In order to find work at all, Olga had to change her surname to Markovac, which she chose because her father’s name was Marko. Though the children’s surname was also changed, they still received their school reports on the surname Hebrang.

Andrija Jr. only learned more about the tragedy of his parents as an adult. He never became a member of the party, and in 1964 when he turned 18, he changed his surname back to Hebrang. One year later, he graduated and enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine. Over the next 19 years, he graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, specialized in radiology, completed his Master’s and Doctoral degrees and became a professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Zagreb. When Zvonko Ivanković Vonta, a prewar Croatian Communist and intelligence agent published a book in 1988 on the background of Hebrang’s death, Andrija Jr. and his family experienced great satisfaction as his father’s name was for the first time somewhat rectified.

It was Franjo Tudjman who definitely removed the tarnish from his father’s name. He immediately decided to do so with the help of Olga Hebrang, who asked him to do so just after HDZ won power in Croatia. He immediately changed the name of Kavurić Brothers Street to Andrija Hebrang Street. It was due to such seemingly unexpected sensitivity by Franjo Tudjman for the fate of Hebrang Sr., that Andrija Jr. most likely joined HDZ. Hebrang was also a blind believer in Franjo Tudjman, who he saw as a replacement for his own father.

“Tudjman cried in the barracks that day when he told me about my father, telling me that we have to be proud of our victims who without thinking gave their lives for their homeland. At the threshold of the 1990s, I asked him whether or not the Croatian tears of sorrow would ever be turned into tears of joy? At that moment he banged his fist upon the table and became a leader, saying that they would. At that moment, he became a replacement for the father I never saw, but of whom I had dreamt my entire life,” wrote Hebrang Jr. in a letter he sent to the weekly magazine Globus following Tudjman’s death.

However, he never succeeded in differentiating that Tudjman immediately took in Hebrang’s surviving family as honest Communists who had suffered for their Croatian beliefs only in an attempt to promote himself among the Party elite which had only slightly suffered for their Croatian nationalism, and more for their liberalism and party revisionism. It is likely for this reason that from the first days of HDZ, Hebrang Jr. showed himself to be a hard-line HDZer, who in some of his political moves proved that in the political sense, he shared only his name with his late father.
In immediately appointing Hebrang as Health Minister, Tudjman likely wanted to politically capitalize on the Hebrang name. Since that time, Hebrang was a minister in every HDZ government, with the exception of the 2nd government under Manolić. On 1 January 1994, Hebrang began the reforms to the health care system, from which the system had not yet recovered prior to his reappointment in that position in Sanader’s government. Hebrang had numerous opponents within HDZ, who envisioned those reforms in a completely different way.

Just what kind of a politician Hebrang was perhaps best seen in the transcript of the confidential meeting of HDZ leaders on 9 October 1996, which surrounded the topic of reorganizing the Croatian health care system. At that meeting, Hebrang announced as Health Minister that it was for the good of HDZ that they deceive the public. “Why did I say on television that everyone has access to all health care services? Not because I think that patients have that right, but because I want this party, that created this nation, to survive, at least until this country can stand up on its own legs. Why did we lie in the Official Gazette that we have determined the level of services, because we have 1.7 EKGs per patient? To satisfy the requirements, and to enable this state and this party to tell the people that they have a right to all services. Well, they do have a right, but they will have to wait a while. And the level of service will be a little lower.”

During his early mandates as Health Minister, Hebrang was accused of nepotism and rigging tenders for the procurement of medical equipment and several similar manipulations. Though some of the accusations were founded, they did not harm his political career. “I am a solider in civil life. For me, my superiors are sacred, and inferiors have to listen, regardless of where I am in that hierarchy,” was a comment by Andrija Hebrang at the time.

Tudjman knew how to respect that. That is likely why in 1996 he appointed Hebrang as head of the physician’s council that would deceive the public about the president’s incurable illness in the interests of HDZ. The deception began on 15 November 1996 when CNN reported that Tudjman had been admitted to Walter Reed military hospital in Washington and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Tudjman’s physician’s council adamantly denied these reports, saying that Tudjman had been admitted to treat a stomach ulcer, that he was feeling well and that he was able to carry out his presidential duties without hindrance.

Though at the time the American physicians only gave Tudjman six months to live, Hebrang and Hrvoje Šarinić, Tudjman’s Chef du Cabinet, contacted a physician from the French Institute Gustave-Roussy, of course, with Tudjman’s permission. They treated Tudjman’s cancer by rinsing out the stomach with cytostatics, which again was publicly denied.

Thanks to Hebrang’s initiative, Tudjman’s health was stable up until early 1998, when a large malignant tumour was found in his cerebellum. The French doctors treated him with gamma-rays and again saved his life. When Nacional published in mid February 1998 that Cardinal Kuharić had visited Tudjman to hear his confession and give him his last rights, Tudjman’s medical council claimed that Tudjman was getting over the flu.

Hebrang notoriously disinformed the public about Tudjman’s illness several times. “I had to say that the President’s working capacity today was what it was before the illness. Which means about five times about the human average,” said Hebrang for Slobodna Dalmacija on 5 Sept 1997. In mid 1998, he commented for Večernji List that Tudjman “is completely capable of carrying out all his functions, duties and daily activities” and that the council considered him to be a cured man.

That conduct soon bounced back at Hebrang. After the death of Gojko Šušak in May 1998, he was proposed as his successor at the head of the Defense Ministry. Tudjman was no longer in any state of health to run the country. Hebrang’s council continued to claim the opposite. That permitted Tudjman to pull make certain cardinal political errors between the summer and winter of 1998, which at that time significantly impacted the development of the political situation in Croatia, and in part affected the immediate future of Croatia. When Tudjman’s tumor had attacked his center for reason, he was easily manipulated by the rigid right-wing faction of HDZ. It was likely under their influence that Tudjman forced his own son Miroslav to retire from his position as head of all the intelligence agencies in the country, as they convinced him that he was an American spy. They also convinced him to seek Hebrang’s resignation as Defense Minister. Even at the time he gave his resignation, Hebrang gave certain indications that something was not quite right with Tudjman. In his letter resigning him from all his positions within HDZ, he told Tudjman, “may God help you in differentiating between good and evil.”

Tudjman’s construction that Hebrang was an American spy brought him closer to the fate of his father, who ended up in prison on accusations that he was a spy for the Ustasha. However, Zvonko Ivanković Vonta, who wrote the biography on Andrija Hebrang Sr. at that time refuted for Nacional that there were any similarities between the fate of the father and the son, as Hebrang Jr. did not end up in jail after leaving politics, he simply returned to his position as professor at the Faculty of Medicine. Ivanković resernted Hebrang Jr. for acting as an extreme right-winger in Herzegovina and for defending Tudjman’s policies, knowing that they were stealing money from the Croatian budget there. “Certain things cannot be washed away. The military under Hebrang sang songs to Jure and Boban, while his own father fought directly against Jure Francetić and condemned him for his evil acts. Hebrang’s most tragic comment was about the Ustasha commander of the camp at Jasenovac, Dinko Šakić. Hebrang commented that Šakić was a victim of the times, even though his half-brother, born to his mother Olga in her first marriage, was killed as a boy at Jasenovac,” commented Ivanković for Nacional. He added that the cooperation between Hebrang Jr. and Tudjman could in no way be compared to the cooperation between his father and Tito. “No one can work for Tudjman, they can only serve him. Nor could Andrija Hebrang Jr. escape that. Hebrang Sr. and Tito began together from nothing, and he could dare to say anything to him. For example, he once in large company asked Tito, who loved rings, why he wore that crap on his hands. He did not hold back from commenting at political sessions, joking that their assess would not be heating those armchairs if it hadn’t have been for crazy Pavelić,” stated Ivankovic for Nacional one year after Tudjman’s death.

After HDZ lost the 2000 elections, Hebrang and Miroslav Tudjman formed HIP, the Society for the Promotion of the Croatian Identity and Prosperity, whose basic political goal was to rehabilitate the life and works of Franjo Tudjman. His cooperation with Miroslav Tudjman did not last long, as both men had strong leadership ambitions. Hebrang quickly returned to HDZ, it would appear because Ivić Pašalić promised him in September 2001 that he would appoint him as president of the party. Pašalić attempted to use Hebrang’s name and influence in HDZ to try to remove Sanader from the presidential position. Later, in December 2001, Hebrang completely unexpectedly and four years too late announced that Tudjman had been running the country in the final months of his life, even though he could not make sound judgments.

Following Sanader’s victory at the HDZ party elections, Hebrang gave his support to Sanader, as “a soldier in civil life for whom hierarchy is most important”. Sanader’s faith in Hebrang was restored and he promoted him into one of the key men in his government. Hebrang began reaching for his conservation rhetoric already in the election campaign, which reminded of the 1990s when he harshly confronted the media that dared to criticize him. He continued with his intolerant behaviour following the elections, which could erode HDZ’s popularity and mobilize the currently passive opposition.

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