LJUBLJANA, YUGOSLAVIA -- Slovenia, by far the most prosperous, most industrially advanced and culturally Westernized of the six Yugoslav republics, has begun nuts-and-bolts preparations to go its own way as an independent nation.

Local leaders now refer to the Yugoslav federation in the past tense and agree that Slovenian secession will occur in a matter of months. "Yugoslavia does not exist anymore," said Andrej Rant, deputy governor of the republic's National Bank.

Work is under way at the bank to print and coin Slovenian money, Rant said. His bank is seeking a foreign loan of several hundred million dollars to establish a reserve to guarantee the new currency.

The Slovenian foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, said his ministry has begun training diplomats and has tentative plans to open 20 embassies in Europe and North America.

Slovenia -- a republic of 2 million about half the size of Belgium -- also is training custom agents and hiring air-traffic controllers. It is preparing to take over the patent office, assume responsibility for copyright law and dispatch veterinary inspectors to border crossings.

As in the Soviet Union, where Moscow has cracked down on independence movements in the Baltic republics, the Yugoslav government in Belgrade does not look favorably on Slovenia's preparation for secession. The army, in particular, has threatened to use force to prevent the breakup of the country.

A central government order giving the army authority to disarm all "illegal paramilitary forces" goes into effect today. It could bring the army into conflict with Slovenia's Territorial Defense Forces, which were shown on Austrian television last weekend performing battle exercises.

{In neighboring Croatia, Yugoslavia's other secession-minded republic, President Franjo Tudjman warned that an army crackdown would have "catastrophic consequences," according to the official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug, quoted by the Associated Press.}

For different reasons, neither the United States nor the European Community looks on the birth of an independent Slovenia with enthusiasm. Slovenes have been warned by American diplomats that "unity and democracy are inseparable."

They also have been warned by international lending agencies that their small economy, which specializes in car parts, furniture and shoes, could founder without the support of the 23 million-strong Yugoslav market.

As of this month, however, that cautioning advice is being rejected. Slovenian Prime Minister Lojze Peterle announced that his republic will devalue all its exports by 30 percent and absorb a 30 percent decline in living standards as his government enters "the crucial phase" of the independence process.

Slovenia had been inching toward secession since last spring, when it held Yugoslavia's first free elections since World War II. Communists were voted from power in the republic, and free-market nationalists took control.

The cautious crawl toward full sovereignty became a foot race after two jolting events in the last two months. The first shock was the resounding presidential victory in Serbia, the largest Yugoslav republic, of Communist strongman Slobodan Milosevic. From the Slovene perspective, that victory created an unbridgeable gulf between this democratic and market-oriented republic and Serbia, whose government is viewed from here as a throwback to old-style totalitarianism.

After Milosevic's victory, Slovenia held a referendum on independence and nearly nine of 10 voters supported it.

The second shock was the disclosure this month that incumbent Serbian politicians had misappropriated $1.3 billion from the National Bank of Yugoslavia and used the money to buy voter support in the December election.

"This is irreparable and against all the rules," said Rant, at the National Bank of Slovenia. "We don't see any minimum of trust anymore for holding together."

The banking scandal, seen here as a mortal wound to the Yugoslav monetary system, was "in a way, a welcome blow," according to Slovenia's foreign minister.

"We have found proof -- a corpus delicti, if you will -- of a pattern of behavior that we knew about for years. It is not the first time. When there was no money from Serbia or for the federal army, they would print it," said Rupel.

Slovenia has less than 10 percent of the Yugoslav population, but it pays for about 20 percent of the central budget. Its per capita annual income of $5,558 is seven times higher than that in the poorest province, Kosovo. Citing these figures, nationalists here have long complained that remaining part of Yugoslavia is bad business.

As a prelude to secession, the Slovenian government is cutting its losses. As of this month, it is keeping all customs duties and federal sales taxes collected within its boundaries. Some portion of the money, according to officials here, will be sent along to the central government for specific programs that the Slovenian government deems worthwhile.

Yugoslav courts in Belgrade have declared the refusal to pay central government bills "unconstitutional." But Western diplomats say the government, short of sending in troops to get money, can do little to enforce the law.