MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has it almost right: The breakup of Yugoslavia is a portent of the dissolution now inexorably under way in the Soviet Union.
His warning, however, should not be directed at patriots who want to break free; it should be sent to tyrants who would enforce with guns the crumbling pretensions of imperialism.
The conglomeration of different peoples called Yugoslavia will break up peaceably or bloodily, next week or next year. Serbia is no longer in charge; time is on the side of unimposed nationalism.
The glue of communist dictatorship has hardened and cracked, and no outside threat forces the parts together. A zeal for self-determination has replaced the drive for empire as the spirit of the age.
Gorbachev, whose personal symbol is a weather vane, surely sees this march toward disunion. The assertion of national identity of the long-suppressed Slovenians was accompanied by two other signs of the times:
Last week, the Warsaw Pact -- Moscow's grand alliance of puppet regimes and satellites -- formally dissolved itself.
And last week the Kremlin learned of the end of its own enforced political unity, as Yakovlev and Shevardnadze, architects of perestroika, joined with reformist mayors of Moscow and Leningrad to let it be known that a fresh political party will soon compete with the sclerotic communists.
Think of that: Yugoslavia breaks apart, the Warsaw Pact dissolves and the Soviet one-party system gets a competitor. Great days for believers in one people, one country.
But don't we, of all peoples, illustrate the ability of peoples of different cultures to build a nation? Didn't we fight a civil war to prevent our own disunion?
Yes, but. We were unified by a common language and a revolutionary heritage; we were geographically isolated; and we annealed our unity by adopting a majority rule for human freedom and against slavery.
Majority rule with individual rights protected is the essence of democracy; the notion of a minority losing and separating to set up shop for itself would make democracy, in Lincoln's word, "absurd."
But that absurdity ends when individual or minority rights are trampled by the majority, or by a tyrannical clique. Then it becomes absurd to stay together. That's when empires, especially of different cultures, split apart.
That's why we must react with moral and diplomatic consistency to the realignment of parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dissolution of Yugoslavia is the dissolution of the Soviet empire in microcosm.
We must not stand for stability and the status quo against new births of freedom. On the contrary, where individual and ethnic rights are not respected, America must stand for self-determination against the power of empire.
It's fine for us to urge Serbs and Slovenians to resolve their differences peacefully; it's proper for international institutions to offer good offices in mediation. But America's diplomats must not intervene economically on central power's behalf, or threaten to not recognize withdrawing nations, in the sterile name of stability and order.
President Bush started to make that mistake in recent weeks, but then wisely drew back; a don't-you-dare message to Slovenia would be read as support of the Kremlin's dominance in Georgia, Byelorussia, Moldavia, even the Baltics.
If the extension of freedom with the avoidance of bloodshed is our aim, we should get creative: we should stop mumbling about "loose confederation" and propose serious global talks on semi-sovereignty.
This idea, whose time is upon us, could be a transition to separate nationhood, or to free association in a commonwealth, or to confederation that might lead to eventual, uncoerced reunion.
We can enforce semi-sovereignty in Iraqi Kurdistan; we can suggest it from Quebec to Northern Ireland, Tibet to Puerto Rico; we can urge it in Israel's West Bank, where it goes by the name of autonomy.
Not the Baltics; they're independent, though captive. But throughout the disintegrating Soviet empire, we should support semi-sovereignty as a form of trial separation -- thereby breaking up the dangerous monolith without breaking out the nukes.