Belgrade — Another communist country faces a dramatic showdown. Ethnic strife in Yugoslavia follows hard on the heels of strikes in Poland, leadership shuffles in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and nationalist unrest in the Soviet Union.
Today, a two-day plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee begins in Belgrade. The meeting is expected to produce key leadership changes in an attempt to tackle ethnic unrest and economic problems.
The crisis is Yugoslavia's most severe since the death eight years ago of leader Josip Broz Tito. Without compromise, some political observers say the country could disintegrate. Even if such fears prove premature, the nationalist unrest and worker protests of recent weeks may worsen.
``Change must come,'' says Milovan Djilas, a former deputy to Tito and now a dissident. ``Our old communist ideology is getting weaker from day to day, not only here in Yugoslavia but everywhere else in the communist world.''
Slobodan Milosevic, Communist Party chief and rising strongman in Serbia, is calling for a radical increase in his republic's power within the Yugoslav federation. He is opposed by several other nationalities, particularly in well-off and westernized Slovenia.
Tito took his country out of the Soviet bloc in 1948 and tried to bring peace among its ethnic and religious factions by giving each region wide-ranging autonomy. His personal authority settled disputes. But since Tito's death, Yugoslavia has stumbled along with a weak central government presiding over a complex power-sharing agreement among the six republics and two autonomous provinces.
The Serbs, under Mr. Milosevic, want to reverse this drift toward greater regionalism. They want leadership changes and the return to Serbian control of police and judicial powers in the autonomous provinces of Voivodina and Kosovo.
Since July, there have been almost daily demonstrations by Serbs. At first, grievances focused on alleged harassment of Serbs by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The protests picked up steam by focusing on spread economic distress: Inflation is running at more than 200 percent and living standards are falling.
``There are two things working here: the economic problems, and the feeling that Serbia doesn't have its rightful say,'' says Dusan Radulovic, political editor at Belgrade Radio.
Milosevic has ridden the wave of these sentiments. He may have orchestrated the protests; he certainly offered his support, saying it was normal for Serbs to take to the streets, because they had no other way to make their feelings known.
``People are tired of hearing empty words from their leaders,'' says Mr. Radulovic. ``They want action - and Milosevic gave them action.''
Until recently it seemed a sure bet that Milosevic would get his way. Federal officials talked of dismissing as many as one-third of the Central Committee at today's meeting. Three Politburo members from Kosovo were scheduled to be dismissed.
Then the protests veered out of control. In Voivodina, 100,000 Serbs besieged the provincial parliamentary for two days. The entire Voivodina leadership resigned Sept. 30, to be replaced by Milosevic loyalists.
Two days later, thousands clashed with police in the Montenegran capital of Titograd, demanding the ouster of the republic's provincial leadership.
``Milosevic may have overstepped himself,'' a Western diplomat says. ``These last demonstrations ... really scared people.''
Other republics, previously silent, have begun to oppose Milosevic. Kosovo's party chiefs so far have refused to step down. Liberal Slovenian party leader Milan Kucan last week attacked Milosevic as a ``manipulator.''
``Until this week, Milosevic was treated with kid gloves,'' another Western diplomat says. ``Now he faces a determined opposition.''
Serbs responded this weekend with threats of more demonstrations. More than 200,000 people massed in Leskovac in southern Serbia on Saturday.
Milosevic may not be able to control this outburst of pent-up nationalism. If he does not win back Kosovo and Voivodina to Serbian control, Serb protests could turn violent.
Giving in to Milosevic and the Serbs could be dangerous for national unity. Albania is sure to complain about the mistreatment of its ethnic brothers in Kosovo. Kosovo itself, the site of Albanian rioting back in 1981, once again could explode.
``There is a genuine problem of Serb nationalism scaring everybody else in the country,'' says Goran Milic of Belgrade Television. ``There's also the danger of all the other nationalisms rising up in response.''
The best possible outcome would be a compromise at the plenum, analysts say. Kosovo would be put under somewhat greater Serbian control, while older Central Committee members resign. Violence might then be avoided and a new generation of leaders might be able to begin modernizing Yugoslavia's economic and political structures.