WHEN the Berlin Wall fell and nationalist sentiments were fanned across Eastern Europe, Belgian leaders proudly suggested that the East's newly independent countries take a look at Belgium.
With the Flemish living in peaceful coexistence with the French-speaking Walloons, the country served as an example of how to address the problems presented by separate ethnic populations living within sometimes arbitrarily drawn national borders, former Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens told a large gathering of European leaders in 1990.
But these days Belgium is taking its example from the East.
Primarily across the northern Flemish region, calls for independence have grown in less than a year to a point where a once-unthinkable idea is presented as a plausible political alternative. "All of Flanders is following with great interest the direction that Czechoslovakia is taking," says Lionel Vandenberghe, a university administrator in Antwerp and president of Flanders' largest annual "national" commemoration. "People are saying, if they can make such a separation peacefully, why not us?"
Many would split
Yet it is not only fervent Flemish nationalists who espouse splitting Belgium, a country of 10 million people sandwiched between the Netherlands and France. Recent polls show one-third of Flanders' 6 million people support the idea.
Perhaps more telling, national politicians admit openly that the idea cannot simply be ignored. Vice Prime Minister Philippe Moureaux says the separatist alternative "cannot be excluded."
According to Xavier Mabille, a noted Belgian political scientist, the attention paid to the separatist idea burst out last November when the right-wing separatist Vlaams Blok party took about 10 percent of the Flemish vote - more than 25 percent in Antwerp and some other cities.
The Flemish separatist sentiments have historic roots, Mr. Mabille notes, dating from Belgium's creation in 1830 as a buffer state between Europe's warring powers. "The country's organization, administration, and ruling class were French ... but the majority of the population was Flemish," he says.
Over the last 30 years the country has moved progressively toward a federal system linking the two communities. The Flemish and Walloon communities were recognized in 1970, with each community taking responsibility for its own administration, education, and justice systems.
The reform process has stalled, degenerating into bitter disputes over separation of the country's social services. Seemingly, the most intractable issue is money. The central stumbling block of the moment is the country's deficit-running social system of health care and other services.
The underlying problem is that Flanders, once Belgium's poor agricultural region, is now more prosperous, with a younger, more entrepreneurial population, while Wallonia, home to exhausted coal and steel industries of Belgium's industrial past, is poorer and older. "People say we should act in solidarity to the Walloons, but the Walloons were ... happy to leave Flanders poor and agricultural when Wallonia was going well," says Wim Van Deyck, a member of the Flemish Nationalist Students Union in Leuven, home to the renowned Catholic University. "Only now do they talk solidarity, but we built our own prosperity and the Walloons should do the same."
Mr. Van Deyck and his friends cite figures ranging to over $2 billion as the amount transferred annually from north to south. They say each Flemish family could buy a nice new car every four years on the Flemish tax money sent to Wallonia - a pithy statistic that was brightly illustrated across the front page of an Antwerp daily recently, but which many experts contest.
While the exact figures remain in dispute, the existence of a north-south transfer, and the growing perception in Flanders that Wallonia is living off it like a parasite, are undeniable.
"The two sides just feel so different," says Lieven Van Gerven, a physics professor and president of Davidsfonds, a large Flemish cultural organization. "In Flanders the feeling is Dutch, industrious, while in Wallonia it's not quite Sicily, but it's getting there," he says.
The umbrella Flemish organization to which Davidsfonds belongs has recommended a "confederal" solution to Belgium's problems, Mr. Van Gerven says, "but we are moving away from that as full separation looks more like the answer."
He says construction of the European Community is also a strong factor in Belgium's evolution toward considering a breakup. "Because Europe is becoming a reality, people are saying, `Why force the creation of a sort of sub-federation that fewer people seem to want anyway?' "
The country's monarchy could be a determining factor. "The king has served as a kind of cement between the two communities, but he is getting older and he has no children, so a change there could be a turning point," says Roeland Raes, vice president of Vlaams Blok and a member of Parliament.
Another scenario has the current impasse over the social security system leading to a governmental crisis, and fresh elections that register a stronger wave of pro-independence sentiment.
Others insist that, while "anything could happen," separation remains unlikely. The complexity of addressing Brussels - 85 percent French-speaking in Flemish territory - is enough to turn many away from independence.
"Belgium is already a complex little country," says Mabille, "but separating into two countries would present even more complications than most Belgians care to contemplate." -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30061.