Yugoslavia: coping, not splintering, after a year without Tito

Just a year ago Yugoslavia began its new life without Tito. Today, all experienced, independent opinion in Belgrade holds that his successors are acquitting themselves well -- particularly in a period of greatly increased economic strains.

Gloomy predictions of a post-Tito "crisis," once offered by so many outside commentators, have not been fulfilled. Nor has the Soviet Union intervened.

Perhaps most important of all, the post- Tito collective leadership has managed to keep the delicate balance among the regions. There has been little sign of the violent centrifugal rivalries that many expected would split this country of so many diverse nationalities once Tito's authoritative, unifying hand was gone. Rivalries there certainly are -- but within limits.

Today the country is governed by two "committees" -- an eight-member state presidency and a 23-member Communist Party presidium. Although seven of those men serve on both committees, no one of them has emerged -- or appeared to be trying to emerge -- as "first among equals."

Today's government may lack the flare and individual stature of the man who led Yugoslavia for 40 years. But now, quite apart from the question of sheer personality, there is no one "neutral" enough to avoid the risk of stirring old passions.

The constituent republics of Yugoslavia have their economic disagreements. But the country's overall economic problems are formidable enough to bind the republics together willy-nilly.

Inflation has leaped to nearly 35 percent. The balance-of-payments deficit stands between $3 billion and $4 billion, and foreign debts are nearing $17 billion.

Maybe there are lessons here for Poland's new lew leaders as they ponder economic reform. Yugoslavia owes nearly as much to the West as Poland does. But the Yugoslav system is flexible enough to manage them in a way Poland's tightly centralized economy cannot.

For a year, Yugoslav consumers have experienced serious shortages. Living standards have declined. But again, a mix of relaxed social-political attitudes and a market-minded economy, if not an actual market economy, are expected to avert the state of crisis that has come to immobilize Poland over the last five years.

Currently, the Yugoslavs themselves are arguing over self-management. Some want, because of the economic difficulties, to rein it in. Others are saying more reform, not less, is needed.

A recent seminar of many of the country's best economists came up with conclusions largely supporting the latter.

* The present "half and half" market- centralist economy, they said, creates confusion.

* Too much coercion is still being attempted by politicians and officials who want to reimpose strong state management, they added.

* Greater harmony is needed between a "united [Yugoslav] market" and the constituent republics which, at present, work too much by economic laws of their own.

* Workers still don't get motivation enough to work better.

Politically, despite intellectual rumblings Yugoslavia remains an "open" country.

Six university professors have just lost a five-year battle with the authorities over the Marxist but nonconformist and proscribed magazine Praxis. A group of former communist writers has been denied permission to start a "free and democratic" monthly.

But regional unlicensed sheets continue to appear. A former prime minister has said Yugoslavs are mature enough to read "hostile" literature without the system feeling threatened.

Some 500 pro-Soviet Cominformists and various republican nationalist activists are in jail, most on minor terms for "verbal incitement." But Yugoslavs made 12 million border crossing last year, the overwhelming majority to the West.

Today's real problem is the north-south gap, the disparities between rich and poor republics. Poorest of all is Kosovo, where 1 1/2 million ethnic Albanians live at a development level less than one-third the Yugoslav average.

Titoism's surviving elder statesman, reform-minded Vladimir Bakaric, recently warned the better-off republics against dragging their feet on aid to the backward ones. Albania itself is right next door to Kosovo and not averse to playing up Yugoslavia's "neglect" of the region.

But Mr. Bakaric is also optimistic. "Our difficulties," he says, "are the birth pangs of a new system." Yugoslavia, under its undramatic but workmanlike new leadership, still seems on the whole to agree.

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