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Shaking the house that Tito built. Nationalist unrest challenges legacy of longtime Yugoslav chief

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The Yugoslav furor over Serb nationalism was in many ways a replay of the Croat separatist crisis nearly two decades earlier. The big difference was the presence of longtime leader Josip Broz Tito on the latter occasion and his absence from the mid-October scene when the storm raged around Serb nationalist demands for ``greater Serb'' influence in the federation.

The message, however - had Tito been there - would undoubtedly have been what he told the Croat leaders and their noisy followers in December 1971.

``We must mind the interests of the country as a whole,'' he said. And of the demonstrations: ``We have forums for solving state problems. We're not going to have them solved on the streets.''

Today, the Yugoslav Communist Party has no Tito and no one remotely approaching his unique authority. It has a top 13-member body equally representative of the country's nationalities and republics, with a titular president rotated among them yearly.

It was probably no accident that the current incumbent, Stipe Suvar, virtually echoed Tito's words. And Serb extremists got their comeuppance, much the same as the Croats in Tito's time.

The issues, too, were not all that different. In Croatia, the local government's claim to a bigger slice and a bigger say in the disposal of hard-currency tourist income from its Adriatic shore was turned into an outcry for quitting the multinational federation.

This time too, the real background is not nationalism but an economic crisis. Yugoslavia has Europe's highest inflation and jobless rates and a 40 percent drop in living standards since 1982.

How strident nationalism might ease, let alone solve, such problems by giving Serbia control of Yugoslavia's poorest region of all, Kosovo, was never explained by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic or his ``give us guns'' followers.

When things reached a similar pitch in 1971, Tito sacked a trio of ambitious Croat politicians for their passivity and then proceeded to crack down as vigorously in all the other republics on any local leaders who, to him, were out of line.

No heads have rolled quite like that this time. But the Serb member of the party Presidium failed to survive an individual Central Committee vote of confidence.

It was not a final defeat but it was certainly a serious setback for the Milosevic leadership. If there was a victory, it was for the essence of the system Tito built. To him what always came first was the mutual interest in unity forged from a hotch-potch of nations, tongues, and religions into a homogeneous federal state with each unit having equal rights.

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