LONG simmering conflicts between the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Serbia - which boiled over two weeks ago - underlie the debate of ruling regional Communist parties as they meet in congress. Yugoslavia is unlikely to break apart in the near future - or to be plunged into civil war - but the increasingly deep rift between its two most important republics raises urgent questions about the future of the Yugoslav state.
Slovenian leaders say no pressure by the rival Serbian republic - including the economic boycott of Slovenia decreed by Serbia last month - could ever force them to abandon their policy of Western-style reforms.
On the regional level, the ruling Slovenian Communist Party has put in place a full range of reforms similar to those being won in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Bulgaria. The party plans to emphasize commitment to reform at its congress this week, with a draft program spelling out goals such as free elections, market economy, free speech, human rights, and integration into the Western European mainstream.
``We are not going backwards, no way at all,'' says Cvetka Selsek, a member of the executive council of the Slovenian Assembly (regional parliament). ``This is the way of development that is and will be implemented.''
Events over the past week indicate that the overall direction of Yugoslav politics may eventually be headed for the Slovenian model, though observers agree the process will be slow.
The regional party congresses this month in Slovenia, Serbia, and other republics are in preparation for an extraordinary congress of the federal Communist Party to be held next month.
On Friday, the federal party published an ambitious draft political program listing goals such as free multiparty elections, free speech, protection of human rights, and entry into the European Community.
It looks good on paper - but the real power in Yugoslavia is not at the federal level but in the republic's regional leadership.
Here, too, though there is indication of change.
The Croatian party last week endorsed the idea of political pluralism and called for the release of political prisoners.
And there was some movement even in the Serbian party, whose hard-line policies, linked with extreme nationalism, have left Serbia increasingly isolated from the rest of the country.
Opening the three-day Serbian party congress Friday, party leader Bogodan Trifunovic made the surprise admission that he did not favor punishment of people trying to form independent parties. This lead to sharp debate on political pluralism, with younger delegates firmly opposed by older officials backing the Communist monopoly.
Meanwhile, throughout the country, numerous independent groups have been formed. Vjesnik, the main newspaper in Croatia, published on Sunday a list of 13 political organizations active in the republic.
``So far, most of these groups are still regional or nationalist in character,'' said a Belgrade journalist. ``There is nothing really nationwide.''
Slovenes - and even Communist Party officials - regard the centralized, monolithic Communism of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic as a relic of the past. They say Serbia's insistence on a ``unitary'' or a more-centralized Yugoslavia is a nationalist ploy to achieve ``Serboslavia'' - a state in which other ethnic groups are dominated by the Serbs.
Slovenians - who with just 8 percent of the Yugoslav population produce over 20 percent of the total gross national product and over 30 percent of hard currency exports - increasingly insist that the loose Yugoslav federation must be further decentralized into a confederation with each republic virtually autonomous.
Serbia called an economic blockade on Nov. 29 in retaliation for Slovenia's banning of a planned mass rally in the capital, Ljubljana, by Serbs wanting to overthrow the reformist Slovenian leadership, who they claim want to secede from the country.
So far, according to Slovenian political, opposition, and business sources, the boycott has had little effect on Slovenia.
The Slovenian Social Democrats, Slovenia's first recognized opposition party, was founded less than a year ago, and several others have sprung up since. Communist officials say they are willing to cede power or enter into coalition should the party win the elections next spring.