Budapest — Some Yugoslavs see the specter of Lebanon hanging over their country. ``The Lebanization of Yugoslavia is a real present danger,'' says Stanko Sajtinac of the Yugoslav Tanjug news agency. ``We may break apart into different groups, each with separate armies at war with the other.''
Like Lebanon, this Balkan country is a fragile composition of ethnic groups - Serbs, Albanians, Slovenes, Croats, and others. A deteriorating economy and rising Serbian nationalism have now erupted into worker protests and nationalist rallies. President Raif Dizdarevic has threatened to decree martial law this week unless the confrontations end.
In a communist state that has traditionally ensured stable prices and work for everybody, inflation is running at 217 percent, the highest in Europe. Unemployment stands at 15 percent. Angry workers demonstrated this week against declining living standards in Montenegro, forcing the resignation of the republic's government.
``If people were getting richer, not poorer,'' says one Western banker, they wouldn't be at each other's throats.''
A new Serbian leader, Slobodon Milosevic, came to power 13 months ago, and proceeded to launch a broad movement to reassert Serbian nationalism. He purged the local Serbian party apparatus. He installed his own men in the news media. Then he began to push for a greater share of power within the entire republic.
Before 1945, Serbia dominated Yugoslavia. It was the biggest and most populous of the nine republics and was the major force in creating the country. The other nationalities resented Serbian hegemony, and ethnic hatreds led to bloody conflict during World War II.
After the war, President Josip Broz Tito curbed Serbian power. He divided the country into six separate republics, each with strong powers. He further broke up the Serbian republic by granting autonomy to the southern Kosovo, which is populated primarily by Albanians, and to northern Vojvodina, home to a mixed population of ethnic Hungarians, Romanians, Germans, and Serbs.
``As soon as Milosevic came in and began talking about a `greater Serbia,' I knew there was going to be trouble,'' says another Western banker. ``He kicked all the liberals out and there was no one to stop him.''
Mr. Milosevic's first target was the Albanians in Kosovo. To Serbs, Kosovo is the heartland of their medieval kingdom. But Albanians outnumber Serbs by 8 to 1 in the province, and the Serbs claim that the Albanians are attempting to drive them out through a campaign of terror, including rape. After the smallest incident, cries of ``genocide'' are often heard.
``Women can't walk out on the streets unaccompanied,'' said one Serbian nationalist in Kosovo Polje, a Serbian suburb of the Kosovo capital Prichtina. ``The Albanians destroy our crops and kill our animals.''
Starting in July, Milosevic organized almost daily demonstrations by his supporters. Thousands showed up. ``We want arms,'' they shouted. ``Send the Army to Kosovo.''
On Sept. 30, the Politburo of the entire Yugoslav Communist Party caved in to Milosevic's demand that Kosovo and Vojvodina be returned to Serbia's control. The two autonomous provinces will lose most of the former powers over the police and the economy.
When Vojvodina's party leaders resisted the decision, Milosevic sent in his Serbian masses. More than 100,000 demonstrators surrounded the Communist Party headquarters Oct. 6 in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, and forced the resignation of the entire provincial leadership.
``It was scary,'' says Tanjug journalist Sajtinac, who is from Novi Sad. ``My Vojvodina is dead.''
Milosevic and his Serbian nationalism frighten all of Yugoslavia's non-Serbian nationalities. One Slovene paper has compared him to Mussolini. Franc Setinc, a Slovene member of the federal Politburo, has resigned in protest - the first time in memory that a member of the ruling Politburo has stepped down in public protest against party policy.
But to Serbs, Milosevic is a hero. During the demonstrations his face appears everywhere on Serbian posters.
``The crowds shout, `Slobodon, we love you,''' reports Alexander Zigic, a journalist at Belgrade radio. ``Serbs see him as the savior.''
A showdown is expected early next week at a plenary meeting of the federal Communist Party. Milosevic is pushing for major changes in the top ranks. It appears that Kosovo's leadership will be replaced. A delegation from the federal Politburo Tuesday criticized the Albanian authorities for permitting attacks on Serbs.
Where will Milosevic stop? His supporters sense victory, and it will be hard for him to call off the demonstrations. A million people are expected at a mass protest in Belgrade on Sunday, the day before the party plenum.
So far, the non-Serbs have hesitated to organize counterdemonstrations in their own republics. They fear that such a move might destroy Yugoslavia as a united country. This possibility alarms Yugoslavia's neighbors - and the superpowers. NATO planners have always been wary of seeing this communist but staunchly independent country, with a long Mediterranean coast, fall back under Soviet influence.
``Sure, Gorbachev may be too preoccupied with his own problems at home to take advantage of Yugoslavia's problems,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But there could be a chain reaction.''
No one in the Balkans forgets how the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked a response among the great powers that led to World War I.
``We're very worried'' a Hungarian official admits. ``This uncertainty upsets the entire region.''