UNDER STRONGMAN Franjo Tudjman, the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia dwelled in a twilight between dictatorship and democracy. The late Mr. Tudjman made free use of the ugly tools of extreme nationalism, thuggery and ethnic prejudice. Even today, an estimated half of the ethnic Serbs who once lived in Croatia remain refugees beyond its borders. The suffering Mr. Tudjman inflicted received less attention than it should have because his mirror-image comrade-in-crime, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, behaved worse.

Inside Croatia, Mr. Tudjman never imposed outright authoritarian rule. His "legacy of unbroken democratic governance in Croatia is a notable accomplishment," according to Human Rights Watch. But, as Human Rights Watch also notes, his was democracy with an asterisk, never entirely fair, with the power of the state employed heavily on his behalf and in favor of the ruling party.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Jan. 3; a new president is to be elected three weeks after that. The basic machinery to conduct a free election is in place. How fairly the government and ruling party behave will go a long way toward determining how quickly Croatia can integrate itself into democratic Europe.

Television remains in the state's control, and news is heavily biased in favor of the ruling party. Election law and practice make it difficult for ethnic minorities, particularly Serbs, to participate. Local governments can severely restrict freedom of assembly. The ruling party may find ways to frustrate opposition parties even if they win the most votes.

Most Croatians, it seems fair to say, would like to shed the negative aspects of their reputation stemming from Mr. Tudjman's heavy-handedness and ethnic crimes. The government itself would like to move further from Serbia's pariah status and closer to the Council of Europe and other institutions that represent democracy and market freedoms. But this movement isn't automatic, as U.S. and European officials and election monitors need to make clear.