Belgrade — The first major political case in Yugoslavia since the passing of President Josip Broz Tito four years ago may also be its last, at least for the immediate future.
Sociologist Vejislav Seselj was tried here recently for writing an article that expressed views critical of Marshal Tito and of the federal system that was Tito's cornerstone for a secure and independent Yugoslavia. The manuscript was found during a police search here.
For his ''counterrevolutionary attacks'' on the Yugoslav political system, Seselj was sentenced to eight years in jail. There was widespread shock at the severity of the sentence. ''A heavy hammer to split a tiny nut'' was a common view.
The government, whose liberals shared the sense of shock over the severity of Seselj's sentence, seems to have heeded the public's disquiet. This was evidenced by the release of a half dozen leftist egalitarian critics, arrested with Seselj.
[The official news agency reported Monday, however, that six unidentified Yugoslavs had been indicted on charges of group activity aimed at overthrowing the system and the government.]
Seselj's manuscript was written for a Communist Party journal that had solicited contributions from political scientists on how to deal with the country's current turmoil.
Unfortunately for Seselj, the article contained derogatory comments on the late Yugoslav leader's ample life style. It was on this, as much as on Seselj's political thesis, that the authorities fastened.
''Not since the days of 1948,'' said the official Yugoslav news agency, ''did anyone attack Tito as violently as Seselj did.'' In fact, Joseph Stalin's language against Tito in 1948 was considerably more offensive politically than was Seselj's.
But if criticism of Tito seems to have become obligatory for some intellectuals, his name retains all its old ''magic'' for the workers and ordinary folk.
One repeatedly hears that everything in Yugoslavia started to go downhill after Tito's death. All Yugoslavia's present woes - squabbles among its republics, high prices, rising unemployment, the deterioration of living standards (in real terms), even the International Monetary Fund's austere terms for financial support - seem to be laid at the door of Tito's successors.
So Seselj received scant sympathy from the majority that still firmly believes Yugoslavia owes to Tito its escape from Soviet domination, all that its people have gained in economic terms, and its relatively open society.
Extremely few Yugoslavs can have taken Seselj's ideas seriously. What made them serious from an official standpoint was his assertion that Tito's federal system brought about a growth of nationalism.
He proposed reducing the republics from six to four - the two others to be attached to or split among the survivors - and to eliminate the autonomous Kosovo and Vojvodina regions altogether.
Even liberals in the Yugoslav leadership felt this too ominous a note to ignore, particularly at a time when the one real threat to present-day Yugoslavia is the demand of Kosovo's frustrated and highly militant Albanians for full republican status.
Politicians here view with alarm even a hint of a threat to the federal system. In their view, it makes economic and political common sense, especially at this time, to strengthen, not dilute, the federal system.
The trial prompted one Tito veteran, Mitja Ribicic, a member of the Communist Party Presidium, to speak out against political trials of almost any genre. His observations, carried in a published interview, were remarkable for their candor even in Yugoslavia.
''I am against all trials (in which) organized hostile or propaganda activity - but reallym organized and dangerous activity - cannot be proved,'' he told the news magazine Nin.
''The political damage to our country is enormous when we settle differences of opinion in court. The best remedy against ideological poisoning of our society should be open debate, the method of purely political struggle against all reactionary views from whatever side they may come.''
To Mr. Ribicic, the Seselj case and other examples of the recent clamp-down on nonconformists represent overreaction by the authorities.
In fact, there has always been an official Yugoslav tendency in periods of difficulty to see, as Mr. Ribicic put it, ''enemies on all sides.''
''When we drag a poet, philosopher, or a sociologist to court instead of meeting his views with argument, we are doing the very thing our opponents and the opposition want us to do.''