A CARTOON published Sunday in a major Yugoslav daily showed an hourglass whose steadily diminishing sands were shaped like Slobodan Milosevic, the fiercely nationalistic president of Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's six republics. The cartoon appeared in Vjesnik, the leading newspaper of the Croatian republic, long an ethnic and political rival of Serbia.
But despite increasing isolation of Serbia within Yugoslavia and tentative moves to establish political opposition, it's too soon to say the sands are running out for Mr. Milosevic.
``Milosevic is still strong, and he'll remain strong if he adapts himself to the new currents,'' Milovan Djilas, long Yugoslavia's most prominent dissident, said in an interview.
Milosevic's pugnacious promotion of Serbian economic and political interests within the loose Yugoslav federation continues to rally the overwhelming majority of Serbs around him through slogans and policies demanding a bigger say in determining the direction of Yugoslavia as a whole.
With this policy, Serbia has reasserted dominance over Vojvodina, its autonomous province to the north, and Kosovo, its autonomous province to the south.
Serbia policy also has alarmed other Yugoslav republics, which are concerned that calls for a more unified Yugoslavia mask a goal of Serbian dominance of the country.
Serbian officials declare there will be no wavering from their position - however strongly outsiders criticize the regime for its aggressive nationalism and, to date, political orthodoxy.
``In Yugoslavia, no party has the mass support of its people to such an extent as do the Serbian Communists,'' said a Serbian official who did not want to be quoted by name. ``Why should outsiders complain about a people having a leader they all support?''
It is impossible to compare developments in Yugoslavia directly to the revolutionary changes sweeping much of the rest of Eastern Europe, though they are all part of the same process.
Economic reform has already begun. Serbian officials expressed displeasure at part of the ambitious plan proposed by Prime Minister Ante Markovic, a Croat, in Parliament Monday. It will freeze prices for certain agricultural goods and raw materials, but allow industrial goods to form prices freely.
The Markovic plan also would make the dinar convertible, peg the exchange rate to the West German mark, and slash four zeros off the current dinar value. Mr. Markovic said the measures would bring more hardship in the short run, in a country where inflation is at 2,000 percent and unemployment is over 15 percent.
Yugoslavia is a loose federation of six republics and two provinces whose ethnically diverse people speak different languages, practice different religions, have different historical backgrounds and even use different alphabets. Social, political, and economic differences among the republics are compounded by deep-seated nationalist rivalries and a foundering economy.
Although there is a federal Communist Party, the real power is in the regional leaderships, which are closely tied to nationalist interests. ``The alliance of Communists with nationalists is a last attempt to keep power,'' says a Belgrade intellectual who opposes the Milosevic regime.
In recent weeks, Serbia has become politically and economically more isolated - or self-isolated - from other parts of the country, but Milosevic and his supporters don't seem to mind.
Long-standing conflicts with northern Slovenia republic, the most economically advanced region, bitterly came to a head at the end of November when Serbia decreed an economic boycott against the Slovenes. This nominally was in retaliation against the Slovenes banning a mass Serbian rally in the Slovenian capital aimed at putting pressure on Slovenia's reformist leaders.
But Slovenians - and even some Serbs - say it was actually engineered to form a more independent Serbia, with an economy less dependent on highly developed Slovenia.
``The blockade is anti-cooperational, considering the present situation,'' the Serbian official said. Yugoslavia's current economic structure ``is unacceptable to us. ... One of Serbia's main platforms is that, due to the Communist economic administration of the country over the past 45 years, Serbia was `pauperized' and forced to be an underdeveloped supplier of raw materials for highly developed Slovenian industry.''
The blockade has had a mixed response. About 80 Serbian firms cut contacts with Slovenia - but vital contacts were not severed.
Over the weekend, anti-Slovenian attacks came to the fore during the Serbian Communist Party Congress. The congress also responded to pressures elsewhere, endorsing eventual formation of limited independent political parties. But observers said that given the lack of democratic tradition and the overwhelming support still enjoyed by Milosevic, there was little chance of any quick implementation of broader pluralistic reforms such as those already implemented in Slovenia.