PARIS — Paris. THE BALKAN question has been with us since the early 19th century. It is not entirely accurate to describe it as a problem of nationalism, as if nationalism were peculiar to the Balkans and there were not other peoples with a destructive conviction of their own natural superiority.
The problem with the Balkans is that its nations have not yet found the fixed national boundaries which would permit nationalist passion to subside. Thus Balkan national feeling, frustrated, remains packed with resentment.
Yugoslavia at this moment is very close to civil war at worst, national break-up at best. The chances that this federation of the south Slavic peoples, created after World War I as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, will survive its present difficulties seem virtually nil.
None of the constituent republics is ethnically whole. Each contains minorities from the other republics. In Serbia, the large Kosovo region is overwhelmingly populated by Moslems, ethnic Albanians, but is historically Serbian, the place where the great battles of medieval Serbia (against the Turks) were fought. A Serbian drive once again to dominate Kosovo has in the past four years provoked much violence there and ignited national TC passions in the other Yugoslav republics.
Croatia, which fought a bitter civil war against Serbia just 50 years ago, in the guise of the Second World War, has a 600,000-strong Serbian minority today. Bosnia-Herzegovina (where the First World War was touched off) has a Bosnian and Moslem plurality, speaking Serbo-Croatian (39 percent), but the Orthodox Christian Serb minority is 32 percent of its total population, the Catholic Croats 18 percent, diverse groups making up the rest.
Religion is very much a factor of division. Yugoslavia is composed of several kinds of Christians, plus Bosnian and Albanian Moslems. All once were compelled to get along, the Christian Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins, and the Moslem Albanians, under Moslem rule in the old Ottoman Empire, and the Moslem Bosnians and Christian Slovenes and Croatians under Hapsburg rule from Vienna.
All that had been brought to an end by the time the World War ended in 1918. Afterward the victorious Allies gave the ''south Slavs'' what they were supposed to want, an independent kingdom, which after World War II became an independent Communist peoples' republic under Tito. However the various peoples, whatever they actually wanted, were never truly reconciled, and too often have proved to want the domination of others in their multinational state.
Economics is also a factor in today's troubles. Slovenia and Croatia are relatively prosperous and want to be part of the rich European Community. The first step in that direction for them is creation of a confederal Yugoslavia in which they might expect to go pretty much their own ways.
Serbia, however, which is poorer, is the largest and most populous republic, with the biggest ambitions. It dominated the pre-war federation and considers itself to have been oppressed since the war in a system established by Tito, who was a Croat. Montenegro and Macedonia are very poor, as is Kosovo.
Serbia wants to keep the existing federal Yugoslav institutions as an instrument for increasing its own influence over the other republics. The Serbs remain committed to the authoritarian style of government of their demagogic leader (formerly Communist, now ''socialist''), Slobodan Milosevic.
Slovenes and Croats have held free multi-party elections and are today governed by center or center-right coalitions. Croatia has made an ambiguous declaration of national sovereignty, provoking a violent reaction from its Serb minority (11 percent) and drawing menaces from Serbia. Elections are to take place in Serbia in December but the new parties are feeble and doubt prevails as to how free the Milosevic government will allow them.
The implications of all this are bad for Yugoslavia but perhaps good for European and world stability, in that Yugoslav disintegration is mostly being ignored by the outside world, and Yugoslavia abandoned to its woes. It didn't used to be that way, as one knows too well from the First World War. In the new pan-Europe begun in the upheaval of democratic, national and anti-Communist forces last year and the year before, Yugoslavia is being left out.
In the past the Balkan Question was dangerous because the major powers sought advantage and national aggrandizement for themselves in Balkan conflict. Now Yugoslavia is making itself an embarrassment to the other Europeans, who believe that after the common ordeal of the last 80 years, all of Europe should have learned that the advantage of one nation does not have to pass by the humiliation and subjugation of another.