Yugoslavia

Several days ago, as President Tito lay dying in a hospital, the tenants of my apartment building in central Belgrade finally decided to clear away the huge pile of rotting furniture and cardboard cases blocking our air-raid shelter.

Along with other tenants in the building, I was invited to a special meeting of our house council -- the basic unit in the uniquely Titoist system of workers' and citizens' self-management. On the top of the agenda, as at countless similar meetings throughout Yugoslavia since Tito fell ill, was security.

We met, several dozen of us, in a room dominated by a portrait of a youthful-looking Tito in a doublebreasted suit. The chairman, a balding bank official wearing a raincoat, began by reminding us that the deteriorating international situation of recent months as well as "internal reasons" called for heightened vigilance. The rest of the country, he noted, had been taking part in civil defense exercises code-named "nothing will surprise us." We too should do our duty.

Next to speak was the representative of an electronics company with offices in the building. He painted a bleak picture of the state of security in our building. We were fortunate enough to have a reinforced air-raid shelter, which he called "a marvelous place that could protect at least 200 people against nuclear attack." But since its construction six years ago it had only been used to dump garbage and could all go up in flames at any moment.

Almost as bad, the doors to the entrance hall were never locked at night -- and tramps were sleeping in the basement.

He paused for effect in his discourse but then added, "Let's face it, comrades, Belgrade is a forest -- and we're on one of the city's main arteries. There are lots of people we don't know roaming around. I don't want to dramatize things, but any terrorist could drive past and throw a bomb into the front hall."

JUST WHO would want to throw bombs into our hallway was not specified, but Croatian extremist organizations in the West, have vowed to step up their activities after Tito's death. They are pledged to the destruction of the Yugoslav state, which was first formed in 1918 out of an amalgam of south Slav nationalities: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and some 20 smaller ethnic groups.

Also active abroad are scattered groups of so-called "cominformists," the old hard-line Yugoslav Communists who supported Stalin in 1948 when Tito was expelled from the Soviet Bloc. They, too, have called for the overthrow of what they describe as "the Titoist clique" in Yugoslavia and its replacement by a "truly communist" pro-Moscow government.

Both types of emigre organizations are closely watched by the Yugoslav secret police, and they post little likelihood of a serious threat within the country.

Our house council was, however, taking no chance. It decided to lock all doors after 9 p.m., draw up a list of tenants, and clear all the rubbish out of the air-raid shelter by the end of this month.

Even these precautions did not satisfy some of the tenants. One elderly woman proposed employing "a man in a uniform with a gun" to guard the building. Another, wearing an astrakhan coat, complained: "Having the doors locked at night is not enough. I can sometimes hear strange people creeping about at three o'clock in the afternoon as well."

IN FACT, Yugoslavia's future probably depends on the complex system of grass-roots democracy built up by Tito than any heightened security measures. The house council also provided an insight into how "self-management" works in practice and how it can be manipulated by the ruling Communist Party.

The meeting was clearly carefully prepared beforehand at the instigation of local officials, responsible for "all-people's defense," a mechanism designed to ensure total resistance to any enemy attack. We were invited to the meeting by the head of the building's communist cell and the main speakers arrived well briefed.

The strength of the system is that it gives citizens a feeling of involvement in decision-making at a local level. Tito deliberately devolved political power as much as possible in order to appease the sensitivities of the Croats and other national groups who fear domination by the more numerous Serbs. At the same time, he retained a strong Communist Party, police force, and Army to ensure that "democracy" produces the right results.

Perhaps the major drawback to self-management is the inordinate amount of time spent on meetings of one sort or another -- or "sastanak" as they are called in Serbo-Croatian. Any outsider relying on television news bulletins for his impressions of Yugoslavia could be forgiven for assuming that Yugoslav life consisted entirely of verbose officials and expressionless workers engaged in endless sastanaks.

Given his experience as a wartime commander, Tito inevitably sometimes betrayed his frustration with the system he created. Last year, for example, he remarked wryly that the partisans did not owe their victory over the Germans in the war to "long discussions around green beize tables with bottles of mineral water on them."

Like Western democracy, self-management has many imperfections. But, for better or worse, it is the way post-Tito Yugoslavia is going to be run.