The caption with a photograph of the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was incorrect in some editions Saturday. The photo showed Tudjman during a presidential election rally in Zagreb in May 1997. (Published 12/15/99)

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, a former Communist general who steered his nation of 5 million to independence from Yugoslavia and became its first popularly elected leader, has died after six weeks of treatment for abdominal disorders, Croatian state television reported early this morning.

Tudjman was 77 and had been fighting stomach cancer for three years. Prime Minister Zlatko Matesa said Tudjman died shortly after 11 p.m. local time Friday.

"The great heart of president Franjo Tudjman . . . has ceased to beat," parliament speaker Vlatko Pavletic said. The constitution calls for Pavletic, who has been filling in for Tudjman, to become the next president until a special election is held to choose a successor. The election must be held within 60 days.

Government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a funeral was tentatively set for Monday, the Associated Press reported. The government news agency HINA said Tudjman's body would be taken from the suburban clinic where he died to the presidential palace midday Saturday and the public would be able to pay their respects until Monday.

During his eight years as president, Tudjman led Croatia to victory in a prolonged war with what remained of Serb-led Yugoslavia after a series of defeats that resulted in the temporary loss of nearly a third of its territory. But he also left his country saddled with huge economic problems, a poor human rights reputation, and still-shaky political institutions that reflect an incomplete transition to free market democracy after years of authoritarian rule.

With parliamentary elections scheduled to be held on Jan. 3, public opinion polls suggest widespread dissatisfaction with Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is less popular than at any time in its history. At the same time, it is unclear whether the group of hard-line nationalists around Tudjman are willing to surrender the political and economic power that they have amassed, including control over state-run television.

Peter Galbraith, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998, described Tudjman as a "dominant figure" in Balkan politics for much of the past decade, together with Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. He predicted that he would be revered by his fellow Croats for the "historic achievement" of creating a free and unified Croatia, but would also be remembered for "an almost racist philosophy" that led to the forced exodus of the country's 600,000-strong Serb minority.

"He had two dreams, one for an independent Croatia with all of its territory; the second for the new Croatia to be accepted as part of Europe," said Galbraith, a scholar at the National War College. "He achieved the first dream. His death may pave the way for achievement of the second goal."

Tudjman died without naming a successor. The HDZ is split between nationalists like deputy parliament speaker Vladimir Seks and more moderate figures like foreign minister Mate Granic, who is better liked by Western governments. Opinion polls suggest that the next parliamentary elections are likely to be won by a six-member opposition coalition that includes social democrats and former Communists.

American diplomats who dealt with Tudjman during his rise to power from dissident to undisputed national leader were torn between grudging admiration for his single-minded strategic vision, dismay at his authoritarian dogmatism and amusement over his weakness for pomp and ceremony. In his memoirs, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, depicted Tudjman as the Croatian mirror image of his Serbian nemesis, Milosevic. But he added that while Milosevic was "driven by power, Tudjman betrayed an obsession with Croatian nationalism."

"His devotion to Croatia was of the most narrow-minded sort, and he never showed much understanding of, or interest in, democratic values," wrote Zimmermann. "If Milosevic recalls a slick con man, Tudjman resembles an inflexible schoolteacher."

In contrast to Milosevic, who looked to the former Communist world for political support, Tudjman was shrewd enough to form a strategic alliance with the United States and Western Europe. During the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, he was viewed in Washington and other Western capitals as a strategic counterweight to Milosevic and the Serbs. The Clinton administration helped to arm and train the Croatian army, and tacitly encouraged Tudjman to push ahead with a military offensive against the Serbs in the summer of 1995 that paved the way for the Dayton peace agreement.

Although Tudjman performed a useful service for the Clinton administration in putting an end to the expansionist ambitions of Milosevic, relations between Zagreb and Washington were strained by Croatia's treatment of its Serb minority. "Operation Storm was the turning point," said Galbraith, referring to the recapture by Croatia of the Serb-inhabited Krajina region and what he described as the organized burning and looting of Serbian property by Croatian security forces.

Tudjman responded by labeling the U.S. ambassador "a tractor diplomat" after he joined fleeing Krajina Serbs on their tractors in a symbolic gesture of solidarity. Stung by American criticism, the Croatian leader accused foreign powers of "trying to impose their will" on Croatia and vowed that he would not permit the West to turn his country into "a colony."

Franjo Tudjman (pronounced FRAHN-yoh TOOJ-mahn) was born in the small Croatian village of Veliko Trgovisce on May 14, 1922, 3 1/2 years after the founding of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, as the first Yugoslav state was known. Although they come from similar South Slav ethnic stock, and speak virtually the same language, Serbs and Croats had previously belonged to different states. Croatia formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire while Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks for three centuries.

Tudjman's father, Stjepan, was a supporter of the populist Croatian Peasant Party, which campaigned for land reform and an end to what was perceived in Croatia as Serbian domination of the new state. During World War II, however, the 19-year-old Tudjman joined the Communist Partisan movement that waged a guerrilla uprising against the Nazis and their Croatian puppets, the extreme nationalist Ustashe.

"I espoused Marxist ideas," said Tudjman, explaining why he became a follower of Josip Broz Tito, the Croatian-born Yugoslav Communist leader who defied both Hitler and Stalin. As one of Tito's youngest generals, Tudjman seemed destined for a brilliant political career in the new Communist Yugoslavia.

Tudjman's Communist ideology was tinged by Croatian nationalism. A key episode in his political evolution, he later explained, was the tragic and mysterious deaths of his father and stepmother in 1946. The couple were found shot to death in their home in what police described as "a classic case" of double suicide. Tudjman came to believe that his parents were murdered by the Communists because of their Croatian nationalist views.

"My father, forgive me," he wrote in his diary in 1986. "It has taken me 40 years to discover the truth."

A historian by training, Tudjman became increasingly preoccupied by Croatian nationalist themes, and published controversial reassessments of the role played by the Ustashe in World War II. He accused the Communists of hugely exaggerating the numbers of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies killed by the Ustashe regime, arguing that fewer than 60,000 had died, compared with the official estimate of 600,000. He also described estimates of 6 million Jewish dead in the Holocaust as "emotional" and "exaggerated."

After a short-lived nationalist upsurge in Croatia in 1971 that was suppressed by the Yugoslav army, Tito imprisoned Tudjman for Croatian nationalism. In deference to his Partisan past, however, Tudjman was treated better than his fellow nationalists. After serving two stints in prison--in the 1970s and the 1980s--he was permitted to travel abroad.

In 1989, Tudjman founded the nationalist HDZ party, largely in response to an upsurge of nationalism in neighboring Serbia. He invited emigre Croats from Europe and North America to Zagreb for the party's inaugural congress. It was an alliance that would later provide him with an important source of funds and arms but also strengthened his ties with extreme nationalists, much to the alarm of the republic's Serb minority.

Tudjman further dismayed the Serbs, and Western governments, with xenophobic remarks such as "Thank God my wife is not a Serb or a Jew," which he uttered during the 1990 election campaign.

Determined to reassert Croatian sovereignty after 900 years under the rule of other countries, Tudjman further antagonized the republic's Serb minority by resurrecting symbols used by the pro-Nazi wartime regime, including the red and white checkerboard of the national flag.

Chosen by the new Croatian parliament as the country's first democratically elected president in May 1990, Tudjman made little effort to win over moderate Serbs. With support from the Yugoslav army, the Croatian Serbs responded to the upsurge of Croatian nationalism by declaring their own autonomy. It took four years for the Tudjman government to crush the Serb rebellion and regain control of all of Croatian territory.

In conversations with Western leaders, Tudjman made little secret of his ambition to extend Croatian sovereignty to large parts of neighboring Bosnia, which he regarded as part of Croatia's political and cultural heritage.

Western diplomats and his own countrymen frequently mocked Tudjman for his grandiose airs, and his elaborately-costumed Palace Guards. Despite his political enmity with Tito, Tudjman modeled his style on that of the former Yugoslav dictator. He vacationed on Tito's private island in the Adriatic and exhibited a similar sartorial sense, appearing in public in a brilliant white dress uniform adorned with gold leaf. Former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitsky chided the Croatian leader for "prancing around in the sort of fantasy uniform not even seen in the Vienna opera these days."

Obsessed with Croatian sovereignty, Tudjman paid little attention to the economy, permitting HDZ loyalists to gain control of state-run industry. The absence of fundamental economic reform has left the Croatian economy to stagnate. An estimated 350,000 people are unemployed and a further 150,000 have not been paid for six months to a year.

Elected president by parliament in 1990, Tudjman was reelected by popular ballot in 1992 and again in 1997.