THE unwinding of Yugoslavia's economy in the mid-1980s has been attended by a rise of Serbian nationalism. Serbian ethnics have been trying to hold rallies in that country's six federated republics. Understandably, most republics - Croatia, Bosnia, and now Slovenia - are reluctant to allow an ethnic group on an emotional high to beat its nationalist drum to the point of fomenting a riot. That's what happened last spring in Kosovo, home of 1.7 million ethnic Albanians, but also a sacred homeland city for 200,000 Serbs.
Now Serbia, which is teetering between trying to unify and trying to dominate Yugoslavia, called last week for a severance of Serbian ties with Slovenia, the other major Yugoslav republic. The call came after Slovenia refused to allow the Serbian Socialist Alliance to import 40,000 Serbs for a rally in Slovenia's capital last Friday.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is very popular (and a Serb), needs to begin curbing Serbian nationalism. It is a corrosive force. Mr. Milosevic was put in office by a coalition of nationalists and economic reformers. But if Serbian nationalism continues unabated, Milosevic will lose his reform backing, and the coalition he needs to hold the federated republics together will begin to come unglued.
Not only Yugoslavia as a whole, but Serbia itself, will be hurt by a split with economically better-off Slovenia. Self-interest, if nothing else, ought to put a stopper on the nationalist aggression other Yugoslavs are tiring of.
Conventional wisdom has it that Serbian nationalism will blow itself out like a storm. Let's hope so. The rest of Europe, along with Washington and Moscow, realize the value of a neutral and stable Yugoslavia. No one benefits from Balkanization - which is another reason the country may not spin out of control, as some predict.
Milosevic can take a cue from what's happening around him in Eastern Europe. Democratic reforms - free elections, better representation for Yugoslavia's ethnic communities, and a freer market - would send positive signals.
That won't be politically easy given his nationalist base. But it is the right track in the long term.
In the editorial ``Curb Serbian Nationalism,'' Dec. 5, the Monitor referred to Slobodan Milosevic as the president of Yugoslavia. This is incorrect. Mr. Milosevic is president of the Serbian Republic. The presidents of the various Yugoslav republics rotate into the presidency of the Yugoslavia. Janez Drnovsek, president of the Slovenian Republic, is the current president of Yugoslavia.