Yugoslavia lurches toward reform of troubled economy. Party congress is urged to adopt tighter fiscal control

``The buck stops here.'' The famous adage of Harry Truman is just what many Yugoslavs are expecting the Communist Party to adopt at a crisis-management congress that opens here Wednesday. In a recent opinion poll on the handling of the economy, 42 percent said they would favor a firmer hand on the part of the government.

``This congress,'' commented the news magazine Start, ``should show its awareness that people have had it [with the crisis] and that the time for academic debate is over.''

Yugoslavs have often been in as difficult economic and political straits as they are now. But the picture seemed brighter when President Josip Broz Tito and a fistful of close wartime comrades ruled the party.

Few believed the ponderous, collective presidency which replaced his personal leadership could fill the gap he left. And according to most political analysts, it hasn't. In retrospect, some of Tito's programs are seen as failures. But they at least gave the country a sense of purpose and momentum. This is what appears to be lacking today, these analysts say.

Today's economic problems are not entirely of Yugoslavia's creating. The difficulties piling up through this decade were aggravated by global economic problems.

The collective leadership now is composed of eight ``equals'' from the six republics and the two regional mini-republics. The leaders know that radical changes in economic management are needed to boost the troubled economy. They are equally aware that someone must pay the price.

Increasingly, the leadership has become inactive and has hesitated in the face of two major problems.

One is the perennial conflict of republican ambitions and back-biting between the more developed north and the disadvantaged south. The other is the deeply entrenched bureaucracy -- a kind of postwar, second-generation Old Guard. Even in ``liberalized'' Yugoslavia, this Old Guard can still thwart essential reforms that would endanger their privileged stake in society.

Yugoslavs are to some extent victims of their own success. Breaking with Stalin in 1948, they also broke with the centralization of prescribed communist writ. They replaced it with a largely market-oriented economy backed by considerable political relaxation and ``states' [republican] rights.''

For 30 years, economic growth was matched by a huge rise in living standards. Confident words glossed over realities increasingly apparent from a strictly economic point of view, but which neither the government nor the people wanted to hear. Yugoslavs continued living beyond their means until this decade brought things to a screeching halt. Economic growth stagnated.

Inflation is nearing three figures. There are 1 million unemployed. Standards of living have plummeted. And, after a decade of encouraging ever-higher expectations, the Communist Party is being taken to task by the public, as last year's strike record shows.

To worsen matters, recent support by the International Monetary Fund and the bonanza from lower oil prices are being largely offset by a concurrent fall in prices for raw materials and related items which make up 80 percent of this country's hard currency exports.

The government is readying a package of emergency measures to revive trade and galvanize the economy. How effective these will be, however, depends on how successful this week's congress is in mustering support of the divergent ``interest'' lobbies.

It is at this point that Branko Mikulic, who took over as prime minister in May, will have to prove his reputation for toughness. He is a man of recognized organizing ability. This was demonstrated in his handling of the successful 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and in the largely successful development of Bosnia and Herzegovina during his tenure there as party leader.

Prime Minister Mikulic is seen as having an authoritarian manner. In a lengthy interview with The Monitor earlier this year, however, his comments seemed to show a hard-headed, no-nonsense approach, rather than the dogmatic, ideological approach some attribute to him.

Mikulic favors a switch toward much tighter monetary and taxation policies. He supports a strictly uniform federal economy rather than the fragmented ``inter-regional'' system now in place.

Politically, he also has to act decisively to reduce mounting conflict between the republics. Just now, this means quieting the escalating confrontation in the Albanian minority region in Kosovo province. There, indigenous claims for full republican status refuse to be silenced, despite repressive policies which have put thousands of local Albanians behind bars. In turn, Kosovo has sparked an backlash of Serbian nationalism at a pitch not seen in this writer's experience in Yugoslavia since World War II.

There are all the ingredients here for a major threat to a united Yugoslavia, the apex of Tito's dream. It will need all of Mikulic's skills to defuse the threat.

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