Yugoslavia's struggle to remake itself

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

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.

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.

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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.

For most Yugoslavs, a return to membership in the Eastern bloc would not be an acceptable solution. With the exception of a small cadre of Serb and pan-Slavic hegemonists, Yugoslavs at the very least dislike and distrust the Russians.

It appears, then, that Yugoslavia has only one workable option - to renounce communism and seek a return to the family of nations that make up the Western alliance, nations with which it shares historic kinship. It is an option advocated by the overwhelming majority of the Yugoslav people, particularly the young, who recognize this course as the nation's sole salvation.

Initial moves to petition the West for admission to its ranks were taken at the June 20 session of the Yugoslav Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Policy and Foreign Economic relations.

``Yugoslavia must do everything not to be left out of the European integration process,'' Oskar Kovach, Yugoslavia's chief negotiator with the European Community, told the meeting.

At the same plenary meeting, urgent calls were heard for Yugoslavia to join a number of multinational conventions within the Council of Europe, and for Yugoslavia to join the 21-member council as observer.

The Yugoslav people are bone-weary of hardship. They are convinced it is their 40-year isolation from Western Europe that has brought them to the brink of despair. Whether life will become better for them through membership in the European Community remains to be seen. They appear to be confident they have the ``right stuff'' to succeed.

Yugoslavs are quick to point out that millions of them already know what life is like in Western democracies. They reject suggestions that they are country bumpkins.

The hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs who went to West Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia as ``guest workers'' over a 15-year period earned immediate recognition as excellent craftsmen and dependable employees. That they would do the same at home if given half a chance is a widely held conviction.

Everything is possible, of course, but the Yugoslav people's wish to join the European Community may be spurned. The European Community may prove cautious about granting full membership to a nation still maintaining so many of the symbols of communism.

Most Yugoslavs are aware that membership in the European Community will not be offered to them on a silver platter. They dream that exceptions will be made and that it will happen. But they are smart enough to understand that unless there is a genuine turning away from communist ideology, their dream of union with Western Europe will not come true.

The United States must not be caught napping on this one. Yugoslavia's strategic and moral situation in the world should not be underestimated. Neither time nor effort can be spared to assist the Yugoslavs in their desire to transit peacefully from communism to social democracy.

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