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Yugoslavia's struggle to remake itself

By Stephen N. SestanovichStephen N. Sestanovich is a veteran US diplomat who writes on intercultural relationships. He has just recently returned from an extended visit to Yugoslavia. / October 25, 1988



THE rollicking summer season has ended along Yugoslavia's Dalmatian riviera. More than 9 million foreign tourists were there, savoring a magnificently developed playground, with some of the bluest water, most modern hotels, and most delicious food in Europe at affordable prices. Now the tourists are gone, most of them without ever becoming unaware of the turmoil in their vacationland.

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Indeed, Yugoslavia is a nation with big troubles. During the summer months alone, the value of the currency, the dinar, plunged from 2,100 to the US dollar to more than 3,200. Basic food prices are 20 to 50 percent higher than last year. Unemployment is over 20 percent.

The government's austerity program is unmatched since the tough days of 1941-45, when underground squads scoured mountainsides for berries and dandelion leaves to sustain them while they routed Nazi and Fascist occupiers.

Day-to-day living has become discouragingly difficult for most people. The hardships of daily life dominate discussion in the press, in churches, and around dinner tables.

What is happening to Yugoslavia? According to Western European sources, Yugoslavia could feed a population almost four times the size of its own. It exports fresh and processed meat, fruits and vegetables, grain, and wine. Iron, lead, gold, manganese, copper, and bauxite ores lie in abundance beneath the earth. Natural gas, forest products, and marine harvests await utilization.

Yugoslavia is on reasonably good terms with all major nations, and it is a leader of the developing world. Trade missions from China, the United States, the Soviet Union, Mexico, West and East Germany, and others visit Yugoslavia regularly.

American business representatives estimate that Yugoslav exports to the US could reach $2 billion annually by 1990, double current figures. Texaco and Chevron are cooperating with Yugoslavia's petroleum monopoly to explore the Adriatic Sea. Honeywell is investigating opportunities for co-production of computers. General Motors seeks an alliance with Yugoslav automakers.

Yugoslavia's image to the world appears to be a zipped-up horn of plenty. On top of all this, Yugoslavia has been conscientious in making payments on its international loans.

Why, then, the problems? Why the runaway inflation, the poor quality of Yugoslav manufactured products, the strife between constituent republics, the strikes, and the needless poverty?

The answer lies in frustration with the nation's basic political and social institutions. People have come to believe that the investiture of the League of Yugoslav Communists and the Communist Party as helmsmen of the political system naturally creates suspicion among Western leadership circles - just as the 1948 break with the Comintern alliance renders Yugoslavia less than trustworthy in Soviet eyes.

Thus, while being friends with many, Yugoslavia enjoys no special relationship with a leading power that could come to its rescue with a degree of enthusiasm. Despite the courtly attention received from so many nations, and the feelers put out by foreign industrial giants, Yugoslavia's actual relations with the developed world are only correct - not close, not special, simply correct. Such relations are not likely to propel favorable solutions to the nation's weighty problems.