Few countries present a more bewilderingly complex picture than Yugoslavia, with its rich mixture of peoples, languages, and cultures. There are Serb, Croatian, Slovene, Bosnian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin republics; an Albanian province and another largely Hungarian one; plus a score of other smaller minority groups.
There are Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim churches.
And ruling over all is the exclusive League of Communists which, in turn, has evolved the equally complex pattern of "collective leadership" designed for the post-Tito era.
It was this highly complicated system, carefully contrived to ensure equality and autonomy for each member of this diverse and often contentious family of nations, that went into operation Jan. 3 when President Tito's illness brought the country suddenly face to face with the uncertainties of Yugoslavia without him.
It has turned out to be a "dress rehearsal" -- and a highly successful one, officials insist.
"It is demonstrating that the system will work, and smoothly," one said.
The President already is resuming a role in state affairs along with his principal aides. Although he may not return fully to all the activity of recent years, his influence on policymaking will certainly remain strong.
But the new institutions of state and party presidencies have tasted responsibility. And the Yugoslav leader, however complete his recovery, will probably have to leave more and more to them.
The state collective has eight members, one from each of the six republics and two autonomous provinces. The party presidium counts three from each republic, two from the provinces, and one from the party organization in the Army.
The aim is to ensure a leadership of equals, both in terms of personalities and of the nationalities and regions they serve.
Outsiders recall the old national rivalries, notably that between Serbs and Croats, and wonder if the latters' separatist thrust might not again erupt if President Tito's authority was not on hand to eliminate it as he did in 1970-71. Even recently there have been hints at what used to be called "pan-Serbism" -- though confined mainly to older intellectuals.
The official answer is that, though such feelings might linger, they are no longer of any significance. The great majority of people is said to be too well aware of the gains the country as a federal whole has achieved through unity to want to discard it.
One is reminded that the collective system has been in operation since 1974. "Today," said the top aide already cited, "there is an ever greater feeling of togetherness among our peoples. There never has been such unity as now."
It is conceded some "first among equals" may emerge in the leadership. "Inevitably," it is said, "some will contribute more solely by reason of personality and ability. But the mutual interest in equality is firmly rooted now."
There are, in fact, four who at present sit on both presidencies. Among these, the Croatian leader, Vladimir Bakaric, is an "elder statesman" of considerable personal authority and influence. After the passing of Edward Kardelj, he became the last of President Tito's intimate personal friends and counselors from the prewar revolutionary days.
He is an erudite, cultured man and -- like his chief -- has had wide experience in the international scene. He is much respected by the West European social democratic and labor parties with which the Yugoslavs would like close contacts.
But there is also an impressive group of younger personalities who have come to prominence in recent years.
One of them is the dynamic slovene, Stane Dolanc, who conducted the crackdown on the nationalist splits threatened in 1970. Last September the President gave him an especially ceremonial award of the country's highest honor, along with extremely significant remarks about his role in the country's future.
Another important figure is Defense Minister Gen. Nikola Ljubicic, the Army nominee on the party presidium. There are 22 other generals on the 166-member Central Comittee, and more than one-third of the armed forces are in the party. It makes them a highly integrated force politically.
Their loyalty to Tito-ism -- and Yugoslav independence -- is unquestioned.
Next: Using economic austerity to preserve independence.