HOW do you say the word "Croat"?For Dr. Frane Golem, the former foreign minister of Croatia who has just been dispatched here to open an office for his government, the question invites a small lesson in etymology. It's a two-syllable word - pronounced CROW-aht - and as a matter of fact, says the amiable surgeon-diplomat, fingering his necktie, the French word "cravate" is derived from it. The Croats serving in Napoleon's army wore the traditional Croatian rope ties around their necks (knotted to keep demons away) and thus the French military leader coined the term. In these days of high drama for all six of Yugoslavia's republics, the story is merely a footnote in a weightier discussion about Croatia's intentions following its June 25 declaration of secession. But in a funny way, it helps Dr. Golem's point: that Croatia has its connections to the West. As a part of the artificial country of Yugoslavia (at first called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) for the past 73 years, Croatia has had an image problem - that is, it has had no image. In fact, Golem says, Croatia and Serbia - the hard-line socialist republic that dominates Yugoslavia - have striking differences. Croatia, long part of the Austrian empire, is Roman Catholic, while Serbia is Eastern Orthodox. Croatia uses the Roman alphabet; Serbia uses Cyrillic. Croatia has elected its leaders democratically and tried to institute free-market reforms, a path that Serbian leaders have resisted. In short, Croatia wants to become a part of the West, politically and economically, says Golem. Europe 1992 beckons brightly to a nation that feels itself brimming with potential. Already, tourism is its biggest industry. Shipbuilding is also a major enterprise in this northwestern republic situated on the Adriatic Sea. Golem rejects the argument that Croatia is too small to make it on its own economically, pointing out several European nations smaller than Croatia. Golem says he was sent here by the Croatian government not to fulfill any sort of formal diplomatic function, but rather simply to promote tourism and trade (though Tia Pausic of the Croatian Democracy Project agreed that his office could be characterized as "the embryo of an embassy.") The point, really, is that the Croatians are putting themselves on the Washington map. The Slovenians, who have born the brunt of the Serbians' wrath over the secession moves, are about three weeks away from opening their own office. Some Washington figures who have advised the governments of Yugoslav republics wish these offices had opened sooner. Then maybe, says one, the White House might have understood developments in Yugoslavia better and approached the crisis more wisely and consistently from the beginning. During his visit to Yugoslavia one and a half weeks ago, United States Secretary of State James Baker III stressed the importance of keeping the country together. This was interpreted by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army as a go-ahead for a crackdown on independence-minded republics, Slovenes and Croats charge. By the end of last week, the US government was highlighting the need for Yugoslavia to "find a way to give vent to the national aspirations" of the republics.