With President Tito's death, political power in Yugoslavia has been transferred to a collective leadership. Theoretically all its members are equal, but in practice a key role in the transition to the post-Tito era is being played by a mild-mannered Croatian intellectual, Vladimir Bakaric, who once said that "freedom cannot be granted in little spoonfuls."

An enormously skillful politician, Bakaric, 68, is the only member of Tito's innermost circle of advisers during the wartime uprising against German occupation who is still in power. His talent for political survival has been compared with that of the French statesman Talleyrand, who flourished in times of revolution and empire alike.

Now that his former political mentor is dead, Bakaric's influence could well be decisive in the two top collective leaderships in Yugoslavia: an eight-member state presidency and a 23-member presidium of the ruling Communist Party. As chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Constitutional Order, Bakaric also has overall responsibility for the powerful security services.

In January, when Tito first became ill, it was Bakaric who went on nationwide television to appeal for unity and recall the bitter dispute with the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1948. Alone among Yugoslavia's present leaders, Bakaric can justifiably claim a significant personal involvement in the first split to occur within the Soviet-dominated world communist movement.

Bakaric, however, has tended to exercise his power behind the scenes. Political observers here believe he will continue to do so, using his unchallenged position to shape the country's development at a crucial stage in its history, rather than attempting to become a second Tito.

A short, stooping figure, he has suffered from tuberculosis for many years and has several times expressed a wish to retire. Before Tito's illness, he largely distanced himself from day-to-day decisions and frequently failed to appear in public for several months at a time.

In the past, Bakaric has been identified with the reformist and pragmatic element in the Yugoslav leadership. He was one of the major advocates of economic reform in the 1960s when Yugoslavia effectively jettisoned centralized Soviet-type planning in favor of a market-oriented economy. It was then that he made his often-quoted remark about freedom.

As the undisputed leader of the 5 million Croats, Yugoslavia's second largest nationality after the Serbs, Bakaric supported the decentratlization of political power from Belgrade and the creation of a federal government. He was also one of the first Yugoslav politicians after World War II to realize that forced collectivization of agriculture was a mistake.

Bakaric argued in favored of decentralization in order to defuse national grievances -- but the immediate result of liberalization was an upsurge in Croat nationalism in the early 1970s. The younger nationalist leaders turned against him and his authority within Croatia was challanged for the first time.

In the end, the Croatian "euphoria" was finally crushed by Tito with Bakaric's assistance and widespread purges were undertaken. But this experience, together with the approach of old age, has probably had a sobering effect on the Croatian leader and he may proceed more cautiously in the future.

Political analysts believe that Bakaric is likely to seek a judicious middle course. While aware of the dangers of hasty liberalization, he also realizes that Yugoslavia's mounting economic problems could lead to serious political difficulties as well.

A lawyer by training, he appreciates the arguments of reformers who demand tighter economic discipline, even greater reliance on free market mechanisms, and a freer political atmosphere in which the root cause of the shortcomings can be discussed seriously. Inflation in Yugoslavia is near 30 percent, unemployment 15 percent, and last year's foreign trade deficit was in the region of $6 billion.

Bakaric's political strength lies in the care with which he cultivated his Croatian power base. On several occasions he is understood to have refused offers of high political office in Belgrade, including the prime ministership. oHe preferred instead to spend most of his time in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, where he has a modern villa in the hills overlooking the city.

A Yugoslav journalist who has followed his career closely commented: "Bakaric is probably the only politician confident enough to be able to say what he likes. He started off in Croatia, but now has all-Yugoslav importance as well."

Born in 1912 and a Communist Party member since 1933, Bakaric comes from an influential prewar bourgeois family. Ironically, his father was a liberal Croatian judge who investigated the illegal Communist activities of Josip Broz Tito in the 1920s. The sympathy that Bakaric's father showed for young Tito formed the basis of one of the most enduring partnerships in modern Yugoslav politics.