Yugoslavia is going to try again this month to overcome an old domestic wrangle over the fundamental principles on which its communist state was founded. Those principles are summed up in the late Josip Broz Tito's wartime slogan of ``brotherhood and unity'' of the mixed peoples who form the country's six republics and two lesser provinces (which were, in theory, autonomous but are constitutionally a part of Serbia).
Currently, Tito's slogan has worn pretty thin under the strains of an escalating economic crisis that has highlighted the country's uneven development and aggravated regional divisions and rivalries that were never far below the surface even at the best of times.
In four decades, there have been four constitutions and three major modifications aimed at calming the rivalries. All the changes, however, shied away from dealing effectively with the potential time bomb always lurking behind the Yugoslavs' idealistic dream of a system of government through multi-self-management.
The actual practice of self-management - from the smallest business enterprises to the relations between independent and supposedly equal peoples and regions - has increasingly failed to live up to its precepts.
In the meantime, the gap between developed republics like Slovenia and Croatia and the underdeveloped center and south of the country has widened.
Increasingly, the federal Constitution is a paper tiger. Challenged above all are its ``sacred'' principles coupling a basic Yugoslav ``common market'' as a responsibility that all republics must respect with ``equal'' rights to control their own affairs.
Obviously, there were always seeds of conflict of interest here, but never as there are now. Increasingly the economic crisis is seen - as the statistics confirm - to have its roots in Yugoslavia's political system.
Inflation is close to 100 percent. By September, pay had already risen 105 percent above 1985's level. Living costs went up much faster. By the year's end, they will be some 250 percent higher than last December.
Five years of static labor productivity, nearly 3,000 lossmaking economic enterprises, well over 1 million jobless, and a Western debt of $20 billion complete the overall picture.
But even more dangerous than the bleak economic situation are the differences from region to region. Here lies the casus belli between the republics and why most of them are fighting tooth and nail in Parliament this month to block far-reaching constitutional changes.
If ethnic differences overall are a potential minefield, disadvantaged Kosovo, with its largely Albanian population, is the fuse which is always near to igniting it. However Belgrade tries to ease the situation, the atmosphere in Kosovo (as this correspondent observed on a recent visit) still suggests it may not be enough to restrain extreme nationalist pressures for republican status. Yet any such move would be a ``call to arms'' for the more extreme Serbian nationalists whose clamor for a ``leading'' Serbian role, as in old Yugoslavia, is more shrill today than at any time since World War II.
A memorandum emanating recently from the Serbian Academy of Sciences caused an uproar in other republics by charging that Tito and his non-Serbian associates had devised self-management to favor Slovenia and Croatia at Serbia's expense. Pressure from the Yugoslav Communist Party forced the document's withdrawal, but not before its most sensitive points were leaked to the press to stir old fears here and in adjacent Croatia.
The collective state presidency has produced a new set of constitutional amendments designed to strengthen federal authority, to reduce ``states rights'' (such as the veto), and to replace consensus with majority decisionmaking in matters of common Yugoslav interest.
``If we cannot get agreement for majority decisions in an integrated market and in other Yugoslav essentials,'' says an economist here, ``then the crisis cannot be resolved.''
It is going to take time in any event. Whatever the federal Parliament is persuaded to adopt this month must be endorsed by republican assemblies and their own constitutions must be amended to match.
It will take at least two years, the experts say. That is time enough for the economy to go on ``muddling through'' - but also time enough for one of the ethnic time bombs to go off.
Last of three articles. The previous articles appeared Dec. 9 and Dec. 15.