THE events of the last few years - and especially of the past weeks - suggest we have been sharing some misconceptions about Yugoslavia. First, because a space on maps of the Balkans is called "Yugoslavia," we think of it as a country. In practice, Yugoslavia is more a process - one marked at different times and under different conditions by violence and tensions, but also by cooperation and cohesion among the various nationalities in the area. And while it is popular now to refer to "age-old antagonisms" among the national groups, the patterns those groups settled in suggest that this isn't the full story. People would not have migrated, lived next to each other, and remained in the areas their descendants currently inhabit if internal war had been the normal state of affairs. Ironically, Albanians and Serbs fought the Turks together at Kosovo in 1389, and in complete contrast with the absorption of the Baltic states into Stalin's Soviet Union, Slovenes quite voluntarily affiliated with other south Slavic peoples in 1918 and again in 1945 to avoid absorption into Italy or Austria. From this perspective, it is no accident Europe is at peace while Yugoslavia goes to war. National groups cooperated in the past because of a threat to their national integrity from external powers. To the degree this threat has receded - at least from the north - it is understandable that the "process" called Yugoslavia would change. The question today is whether it will evolve into a Lebanon or a Switzerland, or at all. Second, despite our American desires to support the forces of right against the forces of evil, there aren't any black-and-white categories available in the Balkans. This is not a simple battle between democracy and communism. The president of Slovenia, Milan Kucan, was the same man who led Slovenia's League of Communists in 1989. The "hard-line communist" president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, has repudiated most of what Josip Tito - the architect of Yugoslav communism - ever stood for. Third, despite the escalating hyperbole regarding "national self-determination," the bottom line is that the only basis for Yugoslavia to fall apart peacefully is precisely the basis for it to stay together: mutually recognized and neutrally enforced guarantees of the rights of members of national minorities. Significantly, "rights" do not belong to nations; they belong to individuals. And although nations may require sovereignty to be free, individuals can be free only if they live under a government th at protects their rights. Simple sovereignty doesn't guarantee the latter. In contemporary Yugoslavia, it appears Slovenia has a legitimate basis for independence. As distinct from other republics, Slovenia's population is relatively homogeneous and geographically concentrated. If it secedes, only Slovenes leave with it, and they all go together. Also, Slovenia is the only republic with a functioning multiparty system, which helps guarantee individual rights. This is not the situation in Croatia. Not only is there a large Serbian minority in Croatian areas not touching Serbia i tself, but there are also many Croatians living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia. Croatia's government may have been elected in competitively. But when one party controls 95 percent of the legislature, embraces a nationalist platform, and has no organized opposition, one wonders how secure individual rights are - especially if one isn't Croatian. THE problem is not simply that Croatia's claims to independence are weaker than Slovenia's. If this were all, one could let the Slovenes go and try to resolve the remaining minority problems separately. The problem is that a Slovenian exit from Yugoslavia would place Croatians in a politically untenable situation vis-a-vis a highly nationalistic Serbia. Changing the balance among the nationalities would make civil war in what remained of Yugoslavia a virtual certainty, with a strong likelihood that it wo uld spill over into a newly independent Slovenia in any case. Finally, while confederation is the straw policymakers are currently grasping at, it is extremely doubtful that confederation in the conventional sense of the term is workable either. One of the key factors behind the current impasse is that in many ways, Yugoslavia already is a confederation. Jurisdiction over individuals has long been a prerogative of republic governments, and the federation can only act in most matters when the republics agree. Hence, it could not move to protect the rights of individ uals when republic governments violated them. Albanians in Kosovo were the first victims. But any republic's minorities could be next (indeed, discriminatory abuses against Albanians in Macedonia are now worse than in Serbia). Thus, the only solution would seem to be the bona fide federation Yugoslavia has never really had. This is clearly not the version of federalism behind which Serbian leaders are currently masking their own rather primitive version of nationalism. Rather, it would be a decentralized federation in which a Yugoslav government, working through recognized courts and a real legal system, could act as a neutral guarantor of individual rights in every republic within its boundaries. If such a solution has slim p rospects with the Slovenes, it is completely unworkable without them.