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Yugoslavia's party plenum roars to a dead end. Key meeting comes and goes, but nationality dispute lives on

Yugoslavia appears more divided than ever following this week's crucial Communist Party plenum. Serbians, the most populous ethnic group, remain locked in sharp confrontation with the Slovenes, Croats, and Albanians. Charismatic Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic wanted a far-reaching purge. But the other nationalities fought back to block him, and the only Politburo member to receive a vote of no-confidence was a key Milosevic associate.

Little was resolved. The issue of leadership changes will come up again in yet another plenum scheduled to take place next month. Meanwhile, widespread discontent over the economy, with its 200 plus percent rate of inflation, along with the simmering nationality conflicts appears likely to mount.

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``People think party sessions can change history,'' party leader Stipe Suvar said afterward. ``But these meetings don't change the situation so much.''

In the months leading up to the plenum, Serbians had held almost daily demonstrations calling for the return of the autonomous province of Kosovo to Serbian control and a leadership purge to show that the country was being put on a new path.

Tension ran so high that President Raif Dizdarevic threatened to impose martial law after protesters clashed twice in past weeks with police, resulting in casualties and the resignation of one provincial leadership.

The Serbian demands rattled the foundations of the country's complex power-sharing arrangement, which includes a rotating presidency and veto powers for each region within the national parliament. Under this system, any single group was prevented from imposing its will on the country.

At the plenum, the other nationalities feared losing their hard-won rights. Speaker after speaker attacked Mr. Milosevic, sometimes even by name.

``Comrade Slobodan, think carefully about what you are trying to do,'' Slovene Virko Hafner said. ``The final outcome could be negative, for your people, your party, and yourself.''

The delegates proceeded to vote no-confidence in a Serbian Politburo member, Dusan Ckrebic. A furious Milosevic mounted the podium to block the motion, and Milosevic supporter Vasil Tupurkovski railed against the formation of an ``unholy alliance.''

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A dead end was reached. Constitutional changes to strengthen the central government and return Kosovo to Serbian control were supposed to be finalized by Nov. 29, while dramatic free-market economic reform plans were scheduled to be implemented on Jan. 1. But haggling could force postponements.

The result is a tragic irony. While Molosevic and his Serbians press for radical free-market economic reforms and a new leadership, the prosperous Westernized Slovenes end up shoring up the creaky, old system.

``Milosevic is systematically portrayed as a fascist who wants to take over the country, and the Slovenes as democrats in white hats,'' says a Western diplomat.

``But what we've seen is that the Slovenes have blocked constitutional changes which would make the federal government more efficient,'' the diplmat adds.

Something will have to give soon. Although Slovene and Croat newspapers seemed satisfied by Milosevic's defeat, they also expressed worries that tensions within the country could be aggravated if the party continues to delay dealing with pressing issues.

``The plenum presented a picture which misses the reality,'' commented Miroslav Koprivica in a front-page editorial of the Zagreb daily Vjesnik. ``After hearing everybody say changes were not so necessary, you have to wonder what the people were screaming about before.''

The open question is how will the disgruntled, defeated Serbians react. Will Milosevic order them to demonstrate? Or will he realize that he overstepped his hand and back down?

On Wednesday afternoon, the Serbian leadership canceled a big demonstration scheduled for Saturday in Belgrade, which was expected to draw 1 million protesters. No explanation was offered.

Some suggested that Milosevic feared a small turnout which would have been perceived as a sign of weakness. Others hypothesized that he had struck a secret deal for a purge to take place gradually over the next few weeks. And yet others suggested that he was conserving his strength for a future street battle.

(Yesterday 15,000 angry Serbians demonstrated in Kosovo Polje, demanding the replacement of Kosovo's Albanian leadership.)

``I ask myself, `What will satisfy the people?''' Zivorad Rajsic, deputy president of the Serbian parliament, said in an interview. ``The top people in the party seem to think that they can keep blocking everything, that the people don't want change.''

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