Shortly after President Tito first entered the hospital last month, a Yugoslav newspaper recalled previous speculation about his health in 1973.

Talk of a heart attack has appeared then in the Western press. Finally an aide summonded up the courage to report the rumors to a perfectly healthy Tito, then aged 80, who remarked: "If they were able to hear the beating of my heart, it would disappoint them a lot. They would throw up their hands in despair and realize it's not worth waiting for."

For years, "I have a strong heart" has been one of Tito's proudest boasts. Today, by the admission of his doctors, his heart and kidneys have weakened considerably following two major operations last month. But his own words should be a caution to the hundreds of foreign journalists who have arrived in Yugoslavia for what everybody is assuming is a death-watch.

The truth is that, apart from the vaguely worded bulletins issued daily by the eight-man medical council, there is little hard information. Rumors and semiofficial leaks abound, but it is virtually impossible to distinguish the accurate from the false. By most accounts, the former World War II guerilla leader surivived a major crisis last week; since then his condition has stabilized at "grave." Beyond that, no outsider knows his true condition -- and nobody can predict how long he might last.

Some seasoned foreign correspondents have been comparing Tito's present lengthy illness to that of Spain's late dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, five years ago. One difference is that Franco's doctors and nurses felt far fewer constraints than Tito's about revealing what was happening in the sickroom. Another is that, in the twilight of Tito's Yugoslavia, there is little of the sense of a society on the point of momentous change that there was during the last days of Franco's Spain.

Any country that has been ruled by a charismatic leader for 35 years must, of course, expect changes after his death. In Yugoslavia too, one of the fascinating aspects of the last few weeks has been to observe the transition from rule by an individual to rule by institutions. But the two chief elements of "Titoism" -- nonalignment abroad and unity among the many different south (Yogo) Slav nationalities at home -- are likely to remain.

What has changed already has been the rhetoric. "Democratization" has become the slogan taken up by politicians across the ideological and national spectrum. Voices have also been raised against the emergency of "little Titos" -- "mali Titici" in Serbo-Croatian -- who it is alleged, have been striding about the country thrusting themselves forward as candidates for the succession.

Who these would-be "Titici" are is unclear -- but the implication is that Yugoslavia has outgrown the need for charismatic leadership.

If democratization does come, the first signs are likely to appear in the press, which is still tightly controlled. It is interesting that one of Yugoslavia's most outspokesn news magazines, the Belgarde weekly Nin, should have chosen this moment to start up a debate on "journalistic bravery." The first contribution came from a young journalist who accused his colleagues of being an integral part of the "socialist establishment" -- and therefore insufficiently criticial.

The new climate does not extend to public discussion of Tito's own role. Coverage by the Yugoslav press of his illness has been almost exactly in inverse proportion to that of the foreign press.At times of sharp deterioration in his health -- front-page news for the rest of the world -- coverage in Yugolavia is restricted to a few lines. By contrast, when he appears to be recovering, extensive space is devoted to get-well messages and summaries of foreign reaction.

Any mention of his amputated leg -- indeed of amputated legs in general -- is taboo. One of the country's most talented journalists, Dragoljub Golubovic of the magazine Duga, has been suspended from his post because he inadvertently allowed a picture of a German woman holding an artificial leg to be published overleaf from a photo of Tito.

The fact that the magazine went to press before Tito's leg was amputated was deemed irrelevant by local Communist Party officials and the Duga workers' council. After 30 years in journalism, Golubovic now faces dismissal unless a court reverse the decision.

In a similar incident the following week, a printer at Duga noticed that a picture of nomadic Indians included a man with a wooden leg. The presses were stopped in mid-run and the offending figure excised from the photo. Meanwhile, a film company is having to reshoot large sequences of its latest movie because it includes a character who loses his left leg.

Public reaction to Tito's illness has been muted. "We're all just keeping our heads down" is the typical reply of many ordinary Yugoslavs when asked.

In private homes however, the president's health and what will happen to Yugsolavia after his death have become the dominant subjects of conversation. Initially there was widespread concern that the Kremlin might try to take advantage of uncertainty after Tito's death. But this feeling has receded, thanks partly to the authorities' smooth handling of what was widely regarded as last month's "dress rehearsal" for the transition to the post-Tito era.

As Yugoslavs hurried home to catch the latest TV bullentins on Tito's condition, a Belgrade film director summed up the attitude of many: "It's as though we've all been part of an earthquake in slow motion. In a way it's better this way than if Tito had died suddenly during the night. We've learned to absorb the tremors and the future doesn't look quite so grim after all."

Security has been tightened throughout the country against terrorist attacks.

In Belgrade apartment blocks, which are normally unguarded, residents have been asked to take turns keeping watch at night. Government offices now check visitors more closely. Tens of thousands of Army reservists have been called up for exercises.

The heightened vigilance has been combined with a grim sense of humor. Dozens of jokes are circulating on what life would be like "if the Russians come." Complaints about incessant price rises -- inflation is running at over 30 percent -- have been replaced by the comment that "it's better to play two dinars more for bread than two kopecks less."