Yugoslavia's warring nationalities once again are taking to the streets, threatening to tear the country apart. Serbians over the weekend staged the largest demonstration in Yugoslavia's history to denounce Albanian nationalism in the southern province of Kosovo, scene of bloody ethnic riots in 1981. Organizers said 1.3 million people joined the rally in Belgrade on Saturday. Witnesses put the figure at about 600,000.
Meanwhile, almost 100,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo launched counter-demonstrations to protest the forced resignations of two of their leaders last week. Helmeted riot police closed all roads leading into Kosovo's capital, Pristina, Saturday to keep ethnic Albanians from converging on the city.
In the northern province of Slovenia, a demonstration is planned today to protest the jailing of two journalists from the youth magazine Mladina.
``It's not civil war yet,'' says Matjaz Jevnisek, a member of Slovenia's Socialist Youth Alliance, here in Budapest over the weekend for a meeting of a new, independent Hungarian youth association. ``But Yugoslavia is becoming a factor of chronic instability.''
Unlike in other East European hot spots, this unrest does not stem from an angry population rising up against a weakened communist leadership. It results from a power struggle among communist leaderships of different national republics.
Yugoslavia withdrew from the Soviet bloc back in 1948 and proceeded to develop a unique decentralized ruling system. Six separate republics and two autonomous provinces each have evolved into almost separate countries within countries - each with its own Communist Party.
Theoretically, no one party should have a say over the affairs of another party. Impatient Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic broke this assumption over the summer by sponsoring demonstrations aimed at bringing Kosovo, which is an autonomous province within the Serbian republic populated in great majority by Albanians, back under strict Serbian rule.
Hundreds of thousands of Serbians followed their leader's calls. A mass demonstration was held almost every day, climaxing Saturday in a huge rally which brought Serbians from all over the country converging on Belgrade. They carried posters with pictures of Mr. Milosevic and Yugoslavia's postwar communist founder, Josip Broz Tito, and chanted pro-communist slogans, ``We love Slobodan'' and ``Long live Tito.''
Albanian communist leader Azem Vlasi cracked under the pressure. After resisting resignation for months, he gave up his post last week. His departure brought 70,000 Albanians, who had not demonstrated until then, into the streets. They also shouted a pro-communist slogan, ``We won't give up our officials.''
``The Albanians feel like their backs are to the wall,'' worries Miha Kovac, a journalist from Mladina also here for the youth meeting. ``The danger is that somebody soon will feel he has no chance to change things except by taking out a machine gun.''
Something similar could be said for northern Slovenians, where a remarkable wave of liberalization has alarmed hard-line Serbian Army leaders.
After Mladina printed articles which first accused Army leaders of corruption and then of planning a ``crackdown'' against Slovenia's active opposition, three editors and an Army sergeant who passed them information were arrested.
Charged with revealing state secrets, they were convicted in July by a military court and sentenced to terms from 10 months to four years. The military supreme court rejected appeals in October, and the four are supposed to begin serving their sentences this week.
Slovenes have united in their defense. Some 100,000 people have joined a Committee for the Defense of Human Rights supported by Slovene Communist Party leader Milan Kucan.
``Mladina thought that this never could happen, that there were no longer any taboos,'' mourns Ingrid Bakse, another Slovenian Youth Alliance leader here in Budapest for the weekend. ``They were wrong.''
Ms. Bakse and others anticipate further tension in coming weeks over proposed constitutional amendments, aimed at giving the weak federal government greater powers. Parliament is scheduled to approve the changes on Nov. 29.
Milosevic's Serbians want the changes, ostensibly as a way of carrying out radical, market-oriented reform to revive Yugoslavia's ravaged economy.
Mr. Kucan's Slovenes are leading the opposition, out of a concern that Serbian leadership over the federation could destroy their cherished local autonomy.
``Milosevic must be stopped before it is too late,'' says Bakse. ``He says he wants a market economy but he wants to get it by dictating himself from the center.''