The Breakup of Yugoslavia Is Far From Sure

JUNE was often a fateful month in Serbian and Yugoslav history. On June 28, 1914, a Serb assassinated the Hapsburg's heir, precipitating World War I.

On June 28, 1948, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin excommunicated the Yugoslavs under Josip Broz Tito for scorning satellite status and making the country independent. It was a fortuitous break for all Yugoslavs, including today's generation.

Two coming dates in June could again be fateful for the Yugoslavs and for the multinational state that has housed their diverse peoples through 40 years of unprecedented regional tranquillity and considerable economic gain.

On June 15, Croatia's parliament plans to pass laws for secession by the end of the month. On June 26, Slovenia is set to do the same. Each perceives a Yugoslav future only in a looser confederal group of independent republic-states.

Opposing the two republics is Serbia, the largest republic and the only one after free elections with a Communist government still in place. Its leadership is highly nationalist. And it is alone in quasi-Stalinist opposition to a restructured Yugoslavia with full devolution of power from a ``command'' center to regional jurisdictions.

Devolution began in the 1950s, under what became known as ``Tito-ism,'' with pioneering reforms in economic management and self-governing republics. Ironically, however, it laid the seeds of the now-threatened disintegration.

Ever since Tito's passing in 1980, over-ambitious regional regimes have increasingly flouted common national interests. It was easy to do, because each ``equal'' republic and province had its own Constitution, parliament, budget, etc.

Federal Yugoslavia, in fact, acquired ``eight of everything'' and some of the republics are now recruiting independent armies - a scenario for some Balkan Lebanon.

Since 1989, the country has been in permanent crisis. This year has seen nonstop forecasts of civil war and the collapse of the old Tito federation.

WILL it - must it - come to this?

It is again well to remember that Yugoslavs - Serb, Croat, Slovene, or whatever - are usually strong on rhetoric.

``Every day we hear civil war is imminent, but it still hasn't come - we're always strong on words,'' a candid journalist remarks.

But that apart, there are major considerations why they all - including intransigent Serbia - must finally hesitate before setting a breakup in motion.

All the republics, even those successful in hard-currency trade, still need their common Yugoslav market. It will be a very long time before an independent Slovenia or Croatia can match the markets of neighboring Austria and Italy.

None will get far without Western aid, and this may ultimately force Serbia to abandon its unconstitutional stand against a Croat as head of state. (The appointment was due May 15 under a process that, for a decade, has been an uncontested rotation among the republics.)

At the moment, aid hangs in the balance. Federal Premier Ante Markovic says $4.5 billion of Western help is imperative this year to avert economic collapse.

Meanwhile, the United States bluntly blames Serbia for the crisis and warns that aid will stop unless it yields on the Croatian presidency. The International Monetary Fund has put a $1 billion standby agreement on hold. Western credits up to $4 billion are likewise on hold, contingent on International Monetary Fund approval.

Mr. Markovic is a Croat but seems, in fact, the sole Yugoslav in today's supposed collective leadership. He is a throughly committed market and political reformer who enjoys respect in the West.

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic may fulminate about ``Western interference'' or raise bogies of Serbian territorial claims on republics who secede. But Croatia and Slovenia, though he has driven them faster in that direction, would still prefer to negotiate a Yugoslav union acceptable to all the republics, akin, say, to Swiss or Austrian patterns.

Thus there is still time and a way for realistic Yugoslavs - including Serbs, whom Mr. Milosevic is making increasingly anticommunist - to assert themselves. If nothing else, the stricter exigencies of need for Western aid may persuade Serbia that compromise remains the only viable course for everyone, itself included.

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