BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — A POLITICAL showdown is quickly nearing in Yugoslavia's largest republic of Serbia. It is a battle between those advocating a pluralistic democracy and those trying to hold on to the old, or at least postponing the arrival of democracy. The outcome could decide this country's future since a victory for democratic forces would be a fatal blow to Serbia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic. He is seen as the leading conservative force blocking both progress in Serbia and attempts to solve Yugoslavia's deep crisis of unity.
After free elections this spring in the two republics of Croatia and Slovenia, Yugoslavia has become a half democracy, with its democratic northwestern part in a steadily intensified conflict with Serbia, still dominated by the Communist Party. For many, an agreement between the six republics on the future democratic makeup of the country is not possible as long as Mr. Milosevic holds power in Serbia.
Last week's opposition rally in Belgrade - the first such rally since World War II - gave the republic's divided opposition a big boost. The opposition, representing the political spectrum from social democrats and liberals to conservatives and militant Serbian nationalists, gained new respect for its ability to get together and hold a joint rally.
But the opposition's prospects were also bolstered by the grave mistake by the police attack on the demonstrators, during which some of Serbia's leading intellectuals were beaten.
``The situation in Serbia is at a very sensitive stage right now,'' says a veteran journalist in Belgrade and one of many who signed protests against the way the news media - controlled by Milosevic - covered the rally. Never before have journalists in Belgrade publicly expressed such wide disapproval of Milosevic's propaganda apparatus, which, for example, described demonstrators as ``hooligans.''
An almost unanimous verdict outside of the party today here in Belgrade is that the position of Milosevic has weakened.
``His spell is gone,'' says a journalist, who adds that Milosevic could still win an election in Serbia today.
Yugoslavia's leading dissident for decades, Milovan Djilas, cites many examples of the weakening of Milosevic's position. According to Mr. Djilas, Milosevic has failed to keep the Communist Party of Yugoslavia united. His brand of nationalistic (Serbian) communism has paved the way for nationalistic noncommunist politicians in both Serbia and Croatia. He has failed to solve the crisis in the province of Kosovo.
``His power is weakening day by day,'' says Djilas during a conversation in his apartment in Belgrade. Still, Djilas thinks Serbia will eventually follow Croatia and Slovenia and become democratic - probably without Milosevic.
Svetozar Stojanovic, a sociologist and another longtime critic of the Yugoslav communist system, also believes that Milosevic is losing his power.
``He hit his peak last year, but he is probably still not beatable in Serbia,'' says Mr. Stojanovic. ``The Communist Party in Serbia will capitulate soon. I have no doubt that free elections will take place sooner or later.''
The debate is intense within Serbia's Communist Party. Last week the party changed its name to the Serbian Socialist Party in its efforts to change with the times.
``We are gradually getting a new identity, accepting a market economy and pluralism,'' says Dejan Popovic, a law professor and member of the party leadership. ``Serbia needs elections as soon as possible. We have no wish to be the bastion of communism in Europe.''
``There is not doubt that Serbia will have free, multiparty elections,'' says Juri Bajec, a member of the party leadership, ``probably before the end of the year.''
But so far, the party has turned away the opposition's calls for elections for a new parliament in Serbia, whose task it would be to write a new constitution for the republic.
``Serbia has to be a democratic country. We can't be the last in Europe,'' says Radoslav Stojanovic, a member of the Democratic Party, one of the opposition groups. All opposition groups are planning new protests next week to keep up the pressure on the communist authorities.