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The Humpty Dumpty of Europe : Yugoslavia: It has always been more a place on the map than a state of mind.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor Manojlo Vukotic. He is a man in the middle in a disintegrating country without a middle. Poor Yugoslavia.

Vukotic is the lonely editor of a newspaper called Borba, one of the few federalist voices in a country violently splintering along ethnic lines.

“I feel as though I have lost my home,” he said.

One man’s pain mirrors national agony. Under secessionist stress, Yugoslavia has proven too institutionally weak to survive as an integrated nation. Now, in quickening violence, neither is it able to contrive a peaceful farewell to brethren who wish to leave it.

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Yugoslavia. Not long ago tourists marveled at a Balkans dynamo thriving in diversity--six republics and two autonomous provinces, five nationalities, four languages, three religions and two alphabets--all in one beautiful mountainous land the size of Oregon.

What is tragically apparent now, amid bloodshed between Serbs and Croats that threatens to spill into other ethnic communities, is that the multihued spokes of the Yugoslav wheel so overmatched its modest hub that they would one day break the national axle.

That time is now. Once a maverick beacon of difference in the grayness of a Soviet-tied Eastern Europe, a fallen Yugoslavia is the new Europe’s Humpty Dumpty.

At the heart of the atavistic crisis that bleeds Yugoslavia is the impotence of the political center. Hardly anybody is listening to those few federalists who still believe in the Yugoslav idea fashioned from the detritus of two failed empires at the end of World War I.

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“About 100 of Borba’s kiosks in Croatia have been blown up. The other 150 are being expropriated,” said editor Vukotic, whose newspaper is battling for survival.

Stolid Belgrade is the capital of Yugoslavia, but Washington it has never been. In Yugoslavia, the federal government is not the source of ultimate power but of calculated weakness. When passions flare, few rally around the federal flag.

The political center--designed more as a holding area--is hollow, almost empty and clearly powerless. That is why 24 million souls must now dance to the drums of regional zealots’ nationalism.

A key attribute of nationhood, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, has never been part of Yugoslavia’s national ethic.

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The more pertinent question, Vucic Cagorovic, director of Yugoslavia’s federal post and telephone company suggested in an interview, is: “What is the whole and what are the strengths of the contributing parts? Here, there are many parts and some are quite strong.”

The alpine republic of Slovenia has left Yugoslavia, apparently with the blessing of Serbia, the biggest and strongest of the six republics. Croatia is also going: the fighting there that the European Community is trying to stem is simply to settle the terms under which it leaves.

Although it may still be called Yugoslavia, the bulk of what remains of a truncated country will really be Serboslavia, Vukotic said.

But its ultimate components are still traumas away from final definition.

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The southern republic of Macedonia will make plain in a referendum today that it does not want to belong to a Serbian-dominated country. The tense republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina is so divided among Serb, Croat and Muslim Slav minorities that even Yugoslavs find it difficult to fathom. In the province of Kosovo, a thin Serbian patina rules a powder keg of 2 million unhappy ethnic Albanians.

The supreme irony is that the death knell for the old vision of Yugoslavia--the reason for today’s unseeming spurt in young widowhood--is that communism died.

A collective sigh of relief marked communism’s passing. But its successor has been more division than democracy--although that is endlessly promised.

After World War II, Josip Broz Tito ruled here. He was a Communist, although not of Josef Stalin’s sort, but strong enough to play off regional hostilities in the name of Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death in 1980, what remained to hold Yugoslavia’s republics in workable if hardly fraternal alliance was Communist rule in all six of them.

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When that collapsed in East Europe’s wondrous winter of 1989, national cohesion went with it--the baby with the bath water, in the view of Yugoslav federalists. In one republic after another newfangled multi-party elections gave power to leaders who ran hardest on old-fashioned nationalism and its historic baggage of ethnic loathings.

“The sense of nationhood vanished with tragic suddenness. Governments that promised us democracy instead returned us to the Middle Ages,” Vukotic said. “Engulfed by ethnic hatred, we have returned to the ugliest that had ever divided us.”

Yugoslavia was always more a place on the map than a state of mind. In the 1981 census, with Tito barely cold, only 1 million people nationwide identified themselves as Yugoslavs, the rest preferring regional or ethnic labels.

Now everybody is a regional patriot. And nearly everybody is nursing a grudge born some violent yesterday along the fault-line between the old Ottoman and Austrian empires.

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Never mind that Serbs and Croats look alike and speak the same language, although the Orthodox Serbs read it in the Cyrillic alphabet and the Catholic Croats in the Roman alphabet. There are blood feuds enough in the Balkan mists to make Sicily seem like Camelot.

Under nationalist-first leaders in the republics, people are free to hate openly and to express it with government guns. There is no one to check their ethnic furies because there is no central authority with strength enough to offer a constructive alternative.

The writ of the Yugoslav federal government--living still, but hardly breathing--extends no farther than its front door. Nobody pays federal taxes or obeys federal laws any more than does anybody heed federal peace appeals.

Federal Prime Minister Ante Markovic won wide international support for his idea of holding Yugoslavia together through shared free-market economic development, but he had almost no support from within Yugoslavia.

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Markovic is, alas, a Croat and therefore distrusted by the Serbs, who share Belgrade as their capital with the federal government. And, naturally, Markovic is also reviled by his fellow Croats for participating in what they consider Serbian attempts to dominate them.

Tito--he was half Croat, half Slovene--was president for life. Since his death, a power-sharing arrangement intended to mute regional jealousies has left Yugoslavia without a chief executive given decision-making powers.

Rather, Yugoslavia is nominally governed by an eight-man collective federal presidency--the six republics and two provinces--in which the president is only the first among equals. The empty title changes hands every year.

The current eight members--Croat Stipe Mesic is president until the end of the year--are distinguished principally by their mutual dislike. Most votes are 4-4 deadlocks. Serbia is usually supported by ally Montenegro and by the two provinces it controls, Kosovo and Vojvodina.

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Nothing much gets done--and no one listens when it does. A federal commission’s proposal to allow internal border changes that would permit ethnic communities to decide where they would live in a new federation of separate states was immediately scuttled by Croatia, which says its borders are inviolable.

The collective presidency is commander in chief of the Yugoslav national army, the preeminent federal institution in the best of times. But most of its officers are Communist-trained Serbs whose sympathies are clear in the dispute with Croatia. They remember less the atrocities inflicted on Croatian villages by Serbian guerrillas during World War II than the tens of thousands of Serbs massacred under a Quisling state created by the Nazis in Croatia. Now the army’s denial that it is supporting land grabs by Serbian irregulars in Croatia fails to convince many people.

As Yugoslavia unstitches itself, many institutions still ostensibly function on a national level although in fact they are as weak at their core as the federal political system is.

Yugoslavia, for example, is still linked to itself and the rest of Europe by rail except in areas of Croatia where there is fighting. But what seems from a distance like a national railroad isn’t.

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Petar Kovacevic, deputy director of the Community of Yugoslav Railroads, explained to a visitor one recent morning that the national network is really six different railroads, one for each republic. Each has its own rolling stock. The central administration is in Belgrade, but it is reeling from a 25% drop in traffic and the current refusal of most republics to pay their share of the system’s costs.

Even so, cross-republic cooperation is more the rule than the exception, and most trains are still running--although one day Serbia shut off electricity to the national grid, stranding 77 trains for three hours.

“Fortunately, railway men get along better than politicians,” said Kovacevic.

Like the railroads, Yugoslavia’s slick, recently modernized telephone network is really an amalgam of six different systems.

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“We have proudly built a First World telephone system, but our organization is very complicated for foreigners and sometimes for us,” said Cagorovic.

With no figure or institution to draw back the pieces, there is no room for optimism among people like editor Vukotic who think that one united country is better than six feuding regions.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a Yugoslavia any longer. There has been a complete collapse of the system. What remains are some names, some institutions, but they don’t function as a state,” Vukotic said. “Why have we reawakened nationalism in its basest form? The attributes of state which could have stopped its spread no longer exist.”


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