Belgrade, Yugoslavia-- As leaders of Yugoslavia's six republics finally get down to the business of refashioning this country, observers say that their biggest obstacle will be the mutual mistrust and disregard for the law that seems to pervade each republic.
A few mind-boggling examples from Yugoslavia's recent history suggest that law here has become a rough approximation of what one thinks he can get away with:
* Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, faced with a collective presidency that refused to back his campaign to declare a state of emergency, said he no longer recognized the federal presidency. He returned to the body, chastened, only after realizing the army would not back his plan for martial law either.
* Facing a currency shortage that was leaving workers unpaid just before his recent election, Mr. Milosevic simply printed up more than $1 billion dinars to pay the employees. "That would be like the state of Indiana printing its own money," explained Joseph Krulic, a historian.
* The Slovene parliament unilaterally initiated steps toward formal secession from the Yugoslav federation last month, while Croatia joined Slovenia in ruling federal laws invalid in their republics. Serbs concentrated in the Croatian area of Knin in turn declared their rejection of Croatian laws.
* The Republic of Serbia stopped paying for products from Croatia, including sewing machines, textiles, petroleum and newspapers. Croatian officials, in retaliation, are considering charging Serbs living on their coast higher taxes than Croatians must pay as a means of pressuring the Belgrade government.
"Behind this is a political decision to weaken the separatists. In this country everything is politics," lamented Tomislav Butorac, a columnist for the political journal Danas. "We call it Wild West."
After months of steadily increasing tension until they stood on the brink of armed confrontation, leaders of Yugoslavia's six republics apparently decided last week they would rather rattle sabers than use them.
Presidents from the six republics met Thursday in the coastal city of Split, in what was expected to be the first step toward
facing the complex legal, economic and political questions confronting Yugoslavia.
Officially, Croatia and Slovenia would like Yugoslavia to become a confederation of sovereign states, similar to the European Community, with loose economic relations. Serbians, who make up the largest single group in Yugoslavia with 40 percent of the population, would like to maintain the federal structure in which Serbia enjoys some degree of authority over the other republics.
But beyond their starting positions for negotiations, passions and frustrations run high in this state of 24 million people of 24 nationalities, where brute force appears often to define politics and law.
Despite the 406 articles making Yugoslavia's constitution arguably the longest in the world, Mr. Krulic said the 72-year-old "Union of Southern Slavs" is now plagued with "an absolute lack of respect for formal laws."
Eleven years after the death of Marshall Tito, the Communist dictator who balanced off Yugoslavia's many groups against each other and subordinated them all to the socialist state, nationalism -- not Yugoslav nationalism but Serbian nationalism, Croatian nationalism and so on -- is the stock-in-trade of all serious political figures here.
Analysts see Yugoslavia as a miniature Soviet Union -- one state packed with many nations, struggling with separatist aspirations that may no longer have the ideological cement to hold together as the Communism crumbles.
"It was first, ideology, and then force that kept us together under Tito. Now, the ideology is gone," said Mario Nobilo, who left the Communist Party's Academy of Arts and Sciences to become the new Croatian presidential spokesman.
It was also have been the counter-balancing interests of the two superpowers that helped keep Yugoslavia afloat, with strong economic aid from Washington after Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948.
Now, the country has only mounting economic difficulties, and the relatively mild interest of Moscow and Washington.
A senior Western diplomat said last week that the country is facing economic collapse, and Serbian leader Milosevic, along with the Croatian and Slovenian presidents, would try to remove the prime minister, Ante Markovic.
Mr. Markovic is responsible for Belgrade's economic shock therapy that brought inflation down from 2,600 percent last year to 150 percent, but that also caused some unemployment -- with the really deep cuts ahead.
"The direction is down, and there's not much release in sight. That's why there's this movement to get Markovic," the diplomat said.
Dropping Mr. Markovic, one of the few figures who has credibility in Western capitals, and stepping back from his market economy philosophy will likely do little to encourage Western investment, the diplomat added.
The tougher economic conditions will likely also spell a rise in the tendency to seek scapegoats among Yugoslavia's map of minorities. If things are not managed wisely, the various ethnic groups could end up killing each other in low-level skirmishes.
"There are many people who have arms, and they know how to use them," said Mr. Krulic, the historian.
While Mr. Milosevic has been unusually conciliatory in recent weeks, observers here warn that he could snap back to politics by intimidation, "where he is obviously more comfortable," the diplomat said.
Whether the Serbians, Croatians, Slovenians, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenegrins eventually agree on closed or open borders, on one state or six, they will continue to live in the same corner of the earth.
"The fact is, if Croatia separates from Yugoslavia, it would still have a border with Serbia, and it would be a bloody border if they don't create some trust," said the diplomat. "The basic problem is the problem of trust."
Diana Jean Schemo is a correspondent for The Sun.