Shaking the house that Tito built. Nationalist unrest challenges legacy of longtime Yugoslav chief

The Yugoslav furor over Serb nationalism was in many ways a replay of the Croat separatist crisis nearly two decades earlier. The big difference was the presence of longtime leader Josip Broz Tito on the latter occasion and his absence from the mid-October scene when the storm raged around Serb nationalist demands for ``greater Serb'' influence in the federation.

The message, however - had Tito been there - would undoubtedly have been what he told the Croat leaders and their noisy followers in December 1971.

``We must mind the interests of the country as a whole,'' he said. And of the demonstrations: ``We have forums for solving state problems. We're not going to have them solved on the streets.''

Today, the Yugoslav Communist Party has no Tito and no one remotely approaching his unique authority. It has a top 13-member body equally representative of the country's nationalities and republics, with a titular president rotated among them yearly.

It was probably no accident that the current incumbent, Stipe Suvar, virtually echoed Tito's words. And Serb extremists got their comeuppance, much the same as the Croats in Tito's time.

The issues, too, were not all that different. In Croatia, the local government's claim to a bigger slice and a bigger say in the disposal of hard-currency tourist income from its Adriatic shore was turned into an outcry for quitting the multinational federation.

This time too, the real background is not nationalism but an economic crisis. Yugoslavia has Europe's highest inflation and jobless rates and a 40 percent drop in living standards since 1982.

How strident nationalism might ease, let alone solve, such problems by giving Serbia control of Yugoslavia's poorest region of all, Kosovo, was never explained by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic or his ``give us guns'' followers.

When things reached a similar pitch in 1971, Tito sacked a trio of ambitious Croat politicians for their passivity and then proceeded to crack down as vigorously in all the other republics on any local leaders who, to him, were out of line.

No heads have rolled quite like that this time. But the Serb member of the party Presidium failed to survive an individual Central Committee vote of confidence.

It was not a final defeat but it was certainly a serious setback for the Milosevic leadership. If there was a victory, it was for the essence of the system Tito built. To him what always came first was the mutual interest in unity forged from a hotch-potch of nations, tongues, and religions into a homogeneous federal state with each unit having equal rights.

A succession of constitutional changes gave each of the six republics and two provinces its own constitution, its own government - in fact, its own everything except an army.

But eight tax systems, eight income policies, and eight ``national'' banks finally so eroded the central authority that it became impossible for it to grapple with inflation, streamline industry, and stimulate export. It was, in fact, ``states' rights'' gone mad.

Both by earlier history and in the royal kingdom between the wars, Serbs accustomed themselves to a ``greater Serbia'' role. But, in the Serb monarchy, the Albanians in Kosovo were never allowed their own language or a say in affairs. The Croat Peasant Party - one of the country's two biggest - suffered violent harassment by a largely Serb police force at election times in Croatia.

In Tito's federation, noncommunist Serbs still resented the loss of the superiority to which they thought size and history entitled them. The economic disasters of recent years were ideal fuel for this kind of feeling, not only with the older generation but now, increasingly, with the younger.

Thirty-five years ago at dissident Milovan Djilas's first trial, the judge read out the indictment in which Mr. Djilas was called Montenegrin (which is pretty much the same as being a Serb). ``No,'' Djilas corrected him, ``Yugoslav.''

These days in Belgrade one notes how many youngsters have been inculcated with another idea. ``Yugoslav?'' they say to you. ``No, I'm Serb.'' One doesn't hear the distinction made like that in the other republics.

Since last year Serb nationalism reached a pitch much higher than anything previously observed in 40 years close acquaintance with the Yugoslav scene.

The problem is by no means closed by what happened in Belgrade last week. It will surely persist until the economy begins to recover. Whether the new blood expected to be brought into the Central Committee from the republics in the next six weeks can help in that recovery remains to be seen.

But an aphorism of the Western wartime allies comes to mind: ``Unless we hang together, we shall all hang together.'' Something like it seems to have been in many minds in Belgrade.

The most hopeful outcome, in fact, is that by their vote the republics, but for one, collectively rejected extreme nationalism and demonstrated that most Yugoslavs still feel, despite all, basically Yugoslav.

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