A REFERENDUM in Slovenia this Sunday is the latest in a series of actions paving the way for possible secession by the Yugoslav republic. More than 90 percent of eligible voters are expected to endorse the idea of ``an autonomous and independent state,'' in defiance of warnings from federal authorities that they view the plebiscite as unconstitutional.
Although Slovenian officials insist that an approval of the referendum does not mean the republic would immediately break away from the rest of Yugoslavia, they add that a ``yes'' vote would lend force to planned negotiations with other Yugoslav republics to redefine their relations.
``A country of 4 million diligent hands needn't be afraid of an independent future,'' runs the official referendum slogan.
Four days before the vote, the Yugoslav federal presidency issued the latest in a series of warnings from various quarters - including the the Army - that unilateral Slovenian secession from Yugoslavia would not be tolerated.
Condemning the referendum as unconstitutional and as a ``unilateral'' attempt to impose Slovenia's vision of future Yugoslav relations by fait accompli, the presidency ``asked the government to join with other federal agencies to prepare and undertake all necessary measures to protect the interests of the country.''
Most Slovenians, however, view secession in terms of ``when,'' not ``if.'' Public opinion polls say a big majority want independence even if it means economic or other hardship.
The referendum is being promoted by all shades of the Slovenian political spectrum, from the center-right government to the opposition Communists.
The vote comes at a time of other milestones in Yugoslavia's political experience:
The final round of Serbia's first multiparty elections also takes place on Sunday.
In the first round, on Dec. 9, nationalist Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic was reelected as Serbian president, contributing to further polarization between Serbia and the country's other republics.
``After the multiparty elections ending with the second round in Serbia, all republics in Yugoslavia will have multiparty systems, but the political orientation of the governments will be so different that I cannot see coexistence,'' says Slovenian Defense Minister Janez Jansa.
The intensely nationalist government of Croatia, led by former Communist Franjo Tudjman, will announce a new Constitution on Saturday which boasts Croatian autonomy.
In the Croatian capital, Zagreb, stalls at the annual Christmas bazaar do a booming business in pictures of General Tudjman, calendars backing an ``Independent Croatian State,'' and paraphernalia ranging from key rings to bumper stickers embodying the Croatian flag and coat of arms.
All across the country, attention is nervously focused on Albania, to see what effect the recent political turmoil in that country will have on neighboring Kosovo, Yugoslavia's mainly ethnic Albanian province.
``In Kosovo, the question is what happens if great changes come in Albania and if a Great Albanian State becomes economically attractive and if from the standpoint of human rights it is more attractive than Serbia or Yugoslavia,'' says Mr. Jansa. ``This could lead to interstate conflict. And from my contacts with foreign diplomats, I think that there is the possibility of a Balkan war.''
In Yugoslavia, the process of democratization has also heavily embodied the idea of forming ethnically unified nation-states. Pushed to its ultimate, this could lead to civil war, analysts say.
Although Slovenia's 2 million people are virtually all ethnically Slovenes, they explain, there are significant ethnic minorities in Croatia and Serbia, and in other parts of the country the population is very mixed.
Ethnic nationalists have been elected leaders of both Serbia and Croatia, and the trappings of their creed are impossible to ignore.
In Belgrade, for example, a Serbian businessman with close ties to Mr. Milosevic has no qualms about shouting during dinner at a posh restaurant, ``Albanians are savages!''
In Croatia, the republic's paramilitary police in camouflage fatigues guard various public buildings, including the offices of Croatian television.
``Information is something very important,'' says a member of a four-man guard team.
But he cannot or will not say against whom they are guarding the building.
It all adds to the tension and uncertainty.