Western political leaders and analysts, for the first time in a generation, have again become actively and anxiously involved in the monitoring of the explosive Balkan region.
Yugoslavian President Tito's illness has triggered widespread concern about the future political stability of his fragile state.
And although the long-term outcome is largely unpredictable, a kind of cautious confidence is growing in Europe that the post- Tito transition in Yugoslavia could take place without becoming the flash point for a major new East-West conflict.
Most observes generally discount recent rumors of troop movement in neighboring Hungary and Bulgarian claims on Macedonia as normal in the region and not necessarily a signal of Warsaw Pact planning for a takeover of Yogoslavia.
While he downplayed the recent rumors of Warsaw Pact troop movements near Yugoslavia as an "unhappy coincidence," one exiled East European expert here noted that he was "more than moderately worried" about the future of the Balkan region after President Tito. He warned that "the dynamics of war have begun" but held out the belief that the Soviet Union would exercise great care concerning Yugoslavia, perhaps preferring to deal with equally independent Romania first.
"History has been hard on the peoples of Yugoslavia," commented one Western diplomat who has been stationed in or has wathched the country for more than a decade. "They have a fairly conspiratorial society and a bloody history, but I'm optimistic about the future." Observers point to a number of encouraging signs.
Among these are the fiercely independent character of the various ethnic nationalities that make up Yugoslavia at present. The tenacious attachment to their individuality frequently has erupted into bloody warfare between the Serbian, Croatian, Slovence, and other groups of the Yugoslav federated state. But most analysts agree that they also have a strong tradition of Slavic unity, especially against an external threat.
"One of the most unifying factors," one expert noted, "has been repeated Soviet warnings, and I don't think the Yogoslav temperament has changed since 1948," when the country split with the Soviet Union.
Since liberating his country from German occupation in World War II and overcoming both internal and external opposition, President Tito has moved to defuse conflicts by installing a complicated form of government and political machinery that distributes leadership among the different groups in the country.
In addition, following his secession from the pro-Moscow communist bloc, President Tito has ruthlessly purged pro-Moscow elements and become a champion of the international nonaligned movement.
President Tito and his partisans have forged a respected military force that is, perhaps more importantly, backed up by hundreds of thousands of part-time citizen-soldiers in the "all-peoples' defense forces" that might become the sort of effective irregular guerrilla army that Tito led during the war.
World opinion is another element frequently cited here as a strong deterrent to the threat of a Warsaw Pact invasion or dismemberment in a post-Tito period. The Yugoslav leader, it is said, has become a worldwide symbol of independence from the superpowers among the nonaligned nations. A military intervention by an outside force, under any pretext, would unleash a wholesale kind of condemnation and fear that could be an unacceptable risk for the Warsaw Pact, according to this reasoning.
Some diplomats have noted, nevertheless, that there are no mutual-defense treaties between Yugoslavia and most of the Western nations. The closest links are the now-moribund Balkan Pact and 1968 post-Czechoslovakian invasion statements by Dean Rusk, former US Secretary of State, and other NATO leaders warning against Soviet incursions in so-called "gray areas" in Europe, such as Yugoslavia and Austria.