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Pro-EU Croatian President Likely To Be Re-Elected Sunday

In Croatia, incumbent President Stipe Mesic is expected to be re-elected Sunday in a runoff election against the country's deputy prime minister.

Opinion polls show that the 70-year old Stipe Mesic, full of vitality and sporting a trim grey beard, is the clear favorite of most Croatians to be re-elected for another five year term. He narrowly missed victory in a first round vote on January 2, and pollsters say he has a lead of more than 30 percentage points over his 51-year-old rival, Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor.

Commentators have described Mr. Mesic as the complete opposite of his predecessor, late nationalist president Franjo Tudjman, who was accused of ruling

Croatia with an iron fist during and after Croatia's wars for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990's.

Mr. Mesic is supported by Croatia's three main center-left opposition parties. His rival, Ms. Kosor, is backed by the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, a conservative party founded by former president Tudjman that won a big victory in parliamentary elections last year. Analysts say part of Mr. Mesic's appeal to voters is that he will be a counterbalance to the government.

Both presidential hopefuls strongly support membership in the European Union, but Mr. Mesic has been able to use his first term in office to win passage of reforms required for EU membership, including reducing the power of the presidency. Croatia is to start accession talks with the European Union in March, but these may present a problem for whoever wins the election.

Among conditions for EU membership is a demand that the former Yugoslav republic hands over key war crimes suspects to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

High on the U.N.'s most wanted list is the fugitive Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who has been accused of arranging the killing of at least 150 Serb civilians and the expulsion of an estimated 150,000 others after a government operation in 1995 to recapture territory held by Serbian fighters.

Mr. Mesic has promised to hand over General Gotovina to The Hague tribunal if he is found. However, the general remains a hero to many Croatians, and if he is captured, his transfer to the tribunal would make Mr. Mesic less popular among nationalists.

He also faces economic difficulties in a country where nearly one in five Croatians of working age is unemployed. Yet, Mr. Mesic has learned to deal with tension throughout his often turbulent years as a politician.

Thirteen years ago he was the last chairman of the former Yugoslav federation's collective presidency. Western diplomats believe Mr. Mesic can use these

political skills, and indeed crown his long political career, by leading now independent Croatia into the EU.