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Yugoslavia's Fragile Federation

YUGOSLAVIA is a microcosm of Eastern Europe - grappling with all the problems of this rapidly changing region. The fragile Yugoslav federation of six republics, two autonomous provinces, and numerous national minorities is experiencing the most severe test in its precarious history. By the end of this year each republic will have staged its own parliamentary elections - the first free multiparty ballots since the communist takeover after World War II. Although the elections are dislodging communist rule and hastening the growth of political pluralism, they are also bringing to the surface all the unresolved ethnic frustrations of Yugoslav society. The most recent republican elections in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina clearly underscored the difficult search for a post-totalitarian consensus among diverse ethno-political interests. In both republics communist parties, whether disguised as reformist, social democrat, or socialist, performed poorly in the voting despite their unequal access to funds and media. The ``reformist'' parties linked with Yugoslavia's federal prime minister, Ante Markovic, also underachieved despite their commitment to marketization and political devolution. The communist collapse was most evident where new ethnic-based, and in some cases openly nationalistic, parties inspired voters by asserting the distinct cultural and religious identities of their constituents.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the rapid growth of political parties among the three major ``nations'' - Muslims, Serbs, and Croats - has been remarkable. The ethnic parties are set to achieve a clear majority in the two-chamber republican assembly and victories in local municipalities corresponding to their demographic strength. Although in Macedonia the nationalist forces were not overwhelmingly successful in the first round of balloting, their impact will noticeably increase after the second round as tensions mount between Macedonians and the large Albanian minority. Macedonia's nationalist front continues to stage protests and mass rallies, claiming that election irregularities denied them their fair share of the vote. In both republics, ``ethnoparties'' will play important roles, whether as governing partners or as a pugnacious opposition.

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The disintegration of communist conformity and the absence of a pan-Yugoslav consensus has placed enormous responsibility on the shoulders of new ethnic party leaders. It remains to be seen whether they can work together - or whether deeply ingrained and bitter animosities will create confusion and conflict. In each republic a balance needs to be preserved between different ethnic and religious groupings, in case a feeling of disenfranchisement among any nationality leads to disruptive extra-parliamentary battles or civil war.

In the opinion of many Yugoslavs, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the key to the country's future. The success or failure of its inter-ethnic compromises will reverberate throughout the federation. Here a Slavic Muslim population is caught between resurgent Serbian and Croatian groups who look toward their respective republics for protection and assistance if either Serbia or Croatia were to declare independence or stake claims to Bosnian territory. To prevent destabilization, the authorities in Sarajevo devised a system of ethnic quotas in the elections guaranteeing a proportion of parliamentary seats to all three major ethnic units. Although the formula was criticized for its limitations on democratic choice and its encouragement of voting for ethnic identity rather than party program, the arrangement made sense in a volatile political climate. It was envisaged as a workable compromise that would maintain peace during the difficult transition to a multiparty system; it would discourage any potentially aggrieved group from reaching for unconstitutional weapons.

The Bosnian settlement demonstrates the intricacies of Yugoslav politics and how either an intra-republican or an inter-republican dispute could quickly escalate into a nationwide conflagration. The secession of a relatively ethnically homogeneous Slovenia may be acceptable to other republics, but a similar move by Croatia, which contains a substantial Serbian minority, could provoke a chain reaction of confrontation which would embroil Bosnia. Bosnian Muslims have expressed nervousness over their exposed position and the danger of Serbian and Croatian expansionism if Croatia were to break away. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serbs underscore their fears of Croatian-Muslim collaboration and the prospects for Croatian annexation of Bosnian territory. Not to be outdone among the Balkanesque conspiracy theories, Bosnian Croats believe that an aggressive Serbia could expand into Bosnia and lay claims to Croatian lands.

No one knows which way Yugoslavia will go after the elections, and indeed whether elections to the federal assembly and presidency will take place at all next year. Serbia and Montenegro decide their future this month, and all the other republics will be closely monitoring the identity and program of the new Serbian leadership. The elections of the nationalist Serbian Socialist Party leader Slobodan Milosevic will stiffen the resistance of other republican leaders, and could accelerate the country's disintegration. Possibly, in order to survive, Yugoslavia may first need to split into several independent components and reformulate itself on the basis of republican referendums and new constitutions. But the division of power in any future federal or confederal Yugoslavia cannot be easily predicted.

Irrespective of how the new republican administrations define and delineate their post-communist arrangements, the vital issue is to minimize the potential for ethnic conflicts which could spill over borders. The mutual suspicions and grievances held by the national leaders can only be dissipated if local and republican self-determination is assured, if outside challenges and threats are minimized, and if economic improvements take place. Regardless of any new shape of Yugoslavia, European institutions must act as magnets and not exclude any republic which demonstrates its commitment to pluralism, human rights, and market reform.

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