"We are not children in a kindergarden," one of the top men running Yugoslavia remarked to this writer some time ago while discussing Soviet encouragement of a small, pro- Soviet group that had just made a brief, ineffective appearance.
"We know what they [the Russians] are doing," he said.
The Yugoslavs, following President Tito's lead, are still very much aware that the Soviets have never given up their hopes of drawing this maverick country back into the Moscow camp. Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948.
This fear of the Russians is one of the prime elements binding the new leaders and the nation together as they prepare for the post-Tito period.
The ailing President can no longer take an active role in government, but preparations had already been made to ensure that his policies would be continued under a collective leadership. This involves an eight-man state presidency and a 23-man Communist party presidium. The new arrangement reflects the equality among the six republics and two autonomous provinces.
The concept of political equality among the nation's regions is designed to ensure that no one person could become dominant and thus stir old national rivalries.
Although some of the new leaders are Tito's associates from partisan days, none of them possesses anything like his remarkable leadership qualities and national appeal.
Some, however, are bound to prove "more equal than others."
"There cannot be a second Tito," another member of the succession group told this writer. "But some inevitably will carry more weight, either through sheer ability or greater experience or in expressing themselves more persuasively in debate."
Foremost among them will undoubtedly be Vladimir Bakaric, an "elder statesman" who will be responsible for home affairs and security. A member of the close-knit team that was with President Tito during World War II, he is the most experienced and resilient of the new leaders.
Mr Bakaric is a highly cultivated, erudite, and shrewd politician who, besides federal commitments, has been the father-figure of Croatian affairs ever since 1945.
never flamboyant, he has nonetheless been a liberal influence. Though it was President Tito who cracked down on the extreme Croat nationalists in 1970, it was Mr. Bakaric who subsequently defused feeling so skillfully that little is heard of Croat nationalism today.
The other members of this new leadership are just as firmly "anti-Soviet" where any threat to sovereignty is concerned. But few are more anti-Soviet than the Macedonians. And Lazar Kolisevski, the nation's acting president, is a Macedonian.
More than any other republic, Macedonia could expect Soviet pressures -- via Bulgaria, which lays claim to Macedonia -- if some future disagreements or situation provided a pretext for interference.
Another oustandingly able leader is Milos Minic, a Serb who has served as foreign minister and still the "trouble- shooter" -- a kind of "Yugoslav Averell Harriman" -- in foreign affairs.
At the Havana conference of the nonaligned movement last fall, the voice was President Tito's, but it was largely Mr. Minic who destroyed Fidel Castro's argument that the Soviet Union is "the natural ally" for the nonaligned.
Dr. BAkaric is 68; Mr. Kolisevski and MR. Minic both 66. Among younger personalities, Stane Dolanc (55) is the most striking. An extremely able man, he is a dynamic Slovene who, since the Croatian Troubles, has never been far from the President's right hand. He is responsible for the political system as such -- that is, the highly decentralized system of selfmanagement.
One of President Tito's last public acts before he fell ill was to gather Yugoslavia's "top 20" for an ostentatious presentation of the country's highest honor to mr. Dolanc.
"I know you are going to make a future contribution to the further development of our socialist community equal to your good work in the past," he told Mr. Dolanc.
Equally impressive -- and even younger -- is Branko Mikulic (52), a Croat from Bosnia. Significantly, he was President Tito's choice last year as the First Chairman of the presidium of the League of Communists, a post that is to rotate annually. Although his term is over, he remains the watchdog of the party's role as a "guiding" and highly disciplined middle-of-the-road force protectig the country's political system from critics on the right or left.
Mr. Mikulic conveys with convictio the new leadership's common resolve that no matter what russia might attempt, it will not shake Yugoslav's foreign policy of its insistence that each Communist Party of state has the right to independence.
Currently, the yugoslavs discount military intervention. But they do anticipate pressures to "soften up" the country and undermine its standing internationally, especially in the third world.
Seven East bloc news-media reports aimed at Belgrade this month have provided quick cases in point to fuel Yugoslav suspicions that a new propaganda campaign has already begun. They began with Pravda's reprint March 13 of a Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper's attack on yugoslavia as being simply the "voice" of the United States and China in the stand if took agaisnt Vietnamese and Soviet intervention in Cambodia and Afganistan.
"But we have fought for our independence before and we shall do so again," one member of the party presidium told me. "Anyone -- I repeat anyone -- who would move against that would have to count on our all-peoples' resistance and a long, lasting war that we could never lose, not even in theory."
One thing is certain. the "Tito epoch" is at an end. An altogether new one is already beginning.
All five men mentioned here are dedicated Tito loyalists. They, and the two presidiums in general, are as commiteed to the system itself as to the stand against outside interference.