Throughout Yugoslavia, office workers stopped work, traffic came to a halt, schoolchildren closed their books for a minute of silence. They were commemorating the third anniversary of the passing of their paternalistic leader, President Josip Broz Tito. Although the Communist leadership pledged to follow his independent policies, the specter of divisive nationalism and apparent political drift may force some sober reflection among the country's leaders.
They will almost certainly attribute the country's plight to mistakes made during Tito's nearly 40 years of rule. The $20 billion foreign debt can be attributed to simple economic mismanagement during Tito's lifetime, Western diplomats say. Yugoslavs are paying for those mistakes with a shortage of basic commodities. Then there is the issue of nationalism and the federal leaders' recurring concern that the six republics might disintegrate under the impact of divisive nationalist interests. Some blame the Albanian ethnic riots in Kosovo two years ago on Tito giving the region too much political autonomy. That area is quiet, but press reports indicate increasing nervousness over Muslim nationalism.
These stresses are increased by an impression of political drift in the ranks of the Yugoslav leadership. There is no clear party line on several major issues , and working out just who holds power and decides the country's direction is a favorite guessing game in the post-Tito era.
''After Tito - Tito,'' said the national Borba newspaper in a front page commentary. But the real move may be away from Tito's authoritarian rule and toward greater democratization, veteran observers say.