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Ivo Sanader: Croatian leader who broke with war past

Zagreb — Ivo Sanader, who resigned as Croatia’s prime minister last week, is credited with transforming his wartime nationalist party into a force that brought his country to the verge of EU membership.

Sanader declined to spell out the reasons for his move, but hinted at frustration with Croatia’s stalled bid to become the European Union’s next member by 2011.

He did not elaborate on his decision but the move came after Brussels stopped accession talks last week with Zagreb due to an 18-year border row with neighbouring Slovenia, which has blocked the EU process since December.

Tall and grey-haired, the 56-year-old has carefully built an image as a decisive and modern leader since his conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party returned to power in 2003.

Even Sanader’s harshest critics praise him for the intelligence and determination he has shown since taking office in 2003.

At the helm of the HDZ since 2000, Sanader steered the party away from the nationalist bent it had under late autocratic president Franjo Tudjman and put it among Europe’s mainstream conservatives.

Born into a devout Catholic family in the seaside town of Split on June 8, 1953, Sanader studied philosophy in Rome before deciding to break with family tradition and study romance languages in Vienna.

One of his brothers is a priest and his sister is a nun.

In the 1990s, Sanader was a HDZ member who kept a low profile and slowly worked his way through the party hierarchy.

He served as science minister in 1992 and then deputy foreign minister for two terms. From 1993 to 1996, he filled the role of the head of Tudjman’s presidential office.

He proved wrong doubters who believed a former foreign ministry official could not restore the HDZ’s popularity following a crushing election loss to the rival Social Democratic Party in 2000.

The defeat ended a decade in power marked by the 1991-1995 war with rebel Serbs who opposed the country’s independence, corruption and isolation.

Having reformed the party over the next three years, Sanader shocked Croatia’s political scene by inviting a party representing minority Serbs to join his coalition government in 2003.

The rights of ethnic Serbs figure among the key criteria for Croatia’s EU accession.

Sanader speaks several languages and has cultivated an image as a progressive politician with connections to European conservatives such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Austrian leader Wolfgang Schuessel.

However, having managed to avoid corruption scandals during his rise, his reputation was tarnished last year by a scandal involving an expensive collection of wrist watches.

Sanader had failed to declare the 150,000-euro (212,000-dollar) watch collection, but a parliamentary inquiry concluded there was no conflict of interest.

He is married and has two daughters.