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Yugoslavia's Multi-Ethnic Makeup Could Lead to Its Unraveling

By Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 1989; Page A01

BELGRADE, DEC. 16 -- "It is as if the blood spilled during the centuries is leaching back up through the soil and into men's minds."

The speaker was a lifelong Yugoslav Communist, a former anti-Nazi partisan, who was expressing dismay at the resurgent regional tensions that have confronted Yugoslavia with its most severe crisis since 1948 and raised questions about its possible disintegration.

This fiercely independent country broke away from Soviet domination more than four decades ago and pioneered the search for economic change among Communist countries in Eastern Europe. But its fragmented, multinational character is now threatening to tear Yugoslavia apart, in ways similar to the ethnic challenges facing the Soviet Union.

Leaders of Serbia, Yugoslavia's largest republic, have called on local companies to boycott all business with Slovenia, the country's richest republic, after the Slovenian government banned a huge street demonstration by Serbs planned there Dec. 1. Goods made in Slovenian factories are still on sale in Belgrade, located in Serbia, but may not be much longer. One diplomat called the economic warfare "suicide."

Inflation is out of control, running at an estimated 10,000 percent a year. The country's debt is staggering, and its economy stagnating.

Next week, Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marcovic, a respected economic reformer, will present the legislature with a plan for dealing with inflation, and plead for powers to implement urgently needed changes in tax, pricing and currency laws.

But it is not at all certain that Marcovic will get what he wants. Yugoslavia's decentralized, federal system, set up in 1974 under president Tito, paralyzes strong executive action by granting a substantial measure of self-government to the country's six constituent republics -- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro -- as well as two autonomous provinces situated within Serbia -- Vojvodina and Kosovo. Thus, real power is held by Communist Party barons in the republics.

But even if Marcovic can cut the deals he needs to make some economic changes, the political tensions in Yugoslavia are certain to remain unresolved and volatile, diplomatic observers said.

This week, in a historic move underscoring the centrifugal political forces pulling at this country, Croatian Communists agreed at a party congress in their capital, Zagreb, to accept multi-party democracy and free elections, following the lead of Slovenia.

Croatia thus aligned itself with the democratic movements in the other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Next year Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenians and Croats -- all former Austro-Hungarian subjects who have been living under communism for the past four decades -- will hold democratic elections.

At the same time, Croatia put itself badly out of step with Serbia, the dominant player in the Yugoslav federation.

Serbia, under its president, Communist strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has refused to endorse power-sharing or free, democratic elections. A Serbian party congress in Belgrade this week gave few signs that Milosevic and his allies have taken note of the vast changes sweeping through the Communist bloc.

In what appeared to be a grudging nod to these forces, a Serbian party spokesman said only that Serbia was willing to consider pluralism "within the party" and promised that the authorities would not use "administrative measures" -- the Communist code word for police intimidation -- against opponents and critics.

The stage is now set for an ideological "battle royal," as one Yugoslav called it, when the national party, the League of Communists, holds its 14th congress next month.

The starting point for debate will be a draft resolution printed this week in the Belgrade daily Borba. If adopted, it would call on the party to abandon its monopoly on power, stop meddling in factory-level decision-making and allow broad freedom to non-Communist political groups. But as with everything else in Yugoslavia, the League of Communists is a federal institution with limited power over regional bosses.

Even ideology has begun to break along regional lines. Serbia, Montenegro and the two autonomous Serb-dominated provinces over which Milosevic has asserted effective political control, Kosovo and Vojvodina, are likely to resist the drive by Slovenia and Croatia for more democracy. The republics of Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina tend to side with Croatia and Slovenia on economic and legal matters, but it is unclear what they will do on the question of political democracy.

Diplomatic observers tend to focus on Milosevic as they attempt to unravel the bewildering array of factors that have led to tension and deadlock in Yugoslavia. A Serbian journalist described Milosevic as a "hormonal Communist" who would have trouble changing his doctrinaire Marxist views.

An ambitious man from the small Serbian town of Pozarevac, Milosevic rose to power with a combination of political cunning and skillful use of the "Kosovo issue." Milosevic rallied Serbs behind the cause of rescuing Serbs in Kosovo from mistreatment at the hands of the large ethnic Albanian minority in the province.

Initially, Milosevic was welcomed as a needed, strong hand. But as the Serbian leader whipped up nationalistic sentiments, staged street demonstrations to intimidate his opponents, muzzled the Serbian press and postponed economic reforms he said he favored, disillusionment set in.

The Kosovo issue has not been resolved, and this time ethnic Albanians are the ones complaining of persecution. Since March, 29 of them and two police officers reportedly have been killed in demonstrations in Kosovo. Azem Vlasi, the ethnic Albanian Communist leader, has been jailed.

Observers say Milosevic is using Kosovo for a larger, unknown political purpose. The latest development came Nov. 29, when Slovenian authorities banned a Dec. 1 march of thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins with the stated goal of sensitizing Slovenians to the Kosovo crisis.

The organizing committee called off the rally, saying, "We do not want to be greeted with guns and truncheons."

But Serbia's party responded that the Slovenian action was "an unheard-of act of aggression against basic human rights and freedoms," and called for the economic boycott of Slovenian goods.

No one here doubts the volatile potential of Milosevic's politics. Serbs make up by far the largest ethnic or national group -- about 40 percent of the total population -- in this national melting pot of Slavs, Moslems (converts to Islam who have status as a separate "nation" in Yugoslavia) and Albanians. The Serbs are scattered throughout several republics.

By all accounts, Milosevic's popularity among Serbs remains high, but observers have detected signs of disaffection. Workers are said to be unhappy with inflation and economic stagnation. "The cow is getting thinner," said one Serb. Several alternative groups, composed of academics and intellectuals, have formed in Belgrade recently but do not yet appear to represent a serious threat to Milosevic.

A more serious problem for him is his increasing isolation. A U.S. State Department comment Dec. 11, mentioning Prime Minister Marcovic by name and supporting his efforts to create a market economy and political pluralism, was praised by Serbian intellectuals.

As long as Tito was alive, nationalistic behavior was kept in check. In 1972, Tito unceremoniously snuffed out a mass movement that had raised local Communist nationalists to the fore in Croatia. But the collective presidency that Tito set up to replace him in 1974 has had neither the legal power nor the moral force to act so decisively.

There is widespread agreement that the country desperately needs a constitutional change that would give the Yugoslav president and prime minister more executive authority to deal with the economy, and bar a local leader such as Milosevic from taking unilateral action to disrupt internal commerce and business.

But a period of heightened regional and nationalistic tensions is seen as an inauspicious time to launch such changes. Slovenia is opposed to any strengthening of central authority that would impinge on its sovereignty. Observers say it is unlikely that other republics would be willing to submit to a stronger central government until Serbia accepts a more progressive, democratic system.

Thus, some diplomats and Yugoslavs have begun to consider the possibility that the country might disintegrate -- or at least revert to a looser confederation.

Ordinary Yusgoslavs often seem surprised at such ideas. Asked if the country could fall apart, a Serbian journalist who had been expounding on the seriousness of the crisis replied with some astonishment. "Yugoslavia has no end," she said.

The Yugoslav army, the one truly nationwide institution, almost certainly would intervene to stop a civil war. But its role in a slow, painful collapse of unified government is uncertain. Like other Yugoslav institutions, it is made up of a mixture of Yugoslav peoples.

© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company

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