President George W. Bush, the first U.S. leader to visit Croatia in 12 years, received a warm welcome from the government on Friday. But about 250 people used the occasion to protest the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Bush came to Zagreb from a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, where this former Yugoslav country was invited to join the alliance, one of the government's top goals.
Croatia's government sees Bush's two-day visit as a clear sign that the country, once distrusted by Washington and other Western governments during the 1990s because of its nationalism, is now embraced by the West.
President Stipe Mesic called the Bush visit a privilege, and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader described it as an honor for Croatia.
Bill Clinton was the last U.S. leader to visit Croatia, and he only briefly stopped at its airport. The only other American president to visit was Richard Nixon in 1970.
Holding banners reading "USA
imperialism" and "The United States of Aggression," about 250 people held an anti-war protest at the French Republic's Square in downtown Zagreb, far from the heavily guarded venues being used for the Bush visit.
A few prominent Croatian actors performed a mock quiz called "Who Wants to be an Oil Magnate?" During it, one actor portrayed Bush and answered questions, using real previous Bush quotes, to the laughter and whistles of the audience.
One protester, Ali Kadhin, a 46-year-old oil engineer who moved to Zagreb from Iraq, said: "What's happening in Iraq now ... it has never been that bad, not even under Saddam (Hussein.)"
Another anti-U.S. protest was to be held later Friday in Zagreb, during which people were invited to light candles for "both victims of terrorism and anti-terror interventions" in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Vesna Terselic, the organizer.
Three non-governmental organizations also publicly asked Sanader to raise some of these contentious issues with Bush. But in an interview with The Associated Press last week, Sanader made it clear he had no such intention.
Bush said recently that today's Croatia is much different from the one Clinton visited 12 years ago, and that it has become a "great example" for other countries in the region.
Relations between Zagreb and Washington have vastly improved since 2000, when Croatia elected a pro-Western government. Washington was unhappy when Croatia opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and refused to agree to exempt U.S. soldiers from war crimes prosecution. But it considers Croatia an ally, and Zagreb agrees.
Croatia's emergence as a stable nation in the turbulent Balkans may have influenced U.S. support.
"In unpolitical language, one can say that the U.S. loves Croatia," said Deana Knezevic, a political analyst. "Politically speaking, the U.S. has strategic interest for the Balkans and peace in the region."
While in Croatia, Bush may address the issue of Serbia — Croatia's neighbor 350 kilometers (about 200 miles) east of Zagreb.
Serbia has been in turmoil since Feb. 17, when the province of Kosovo declared independence.
Serbia and its ally Russia oppose Kosovan independence, but the U.S. and major European powers recognized the new state. Many Serbians have turned against Washington because of this, while Russia has been cementing its influence with Serbs.
Serbia's May 11 elections could bring nationalists to power, potentially renewing tensions in the Balkan region, which in the 1990's was the site of the bloodiest wars in Europe since World War II.