SKOPJE, Yugoslavia -- Waving scarlet flags embossed with the yellow lion of Macedonia and banners reading, "Macedonia for the Macedonians," thousands of supporters cheered nationalist leader Ljupco Georgievski at an election rally in the southern Yugoslavian republic.
"We want to create an independent Macedonian state, where no one rules except the Macedonian people," Mr. Georgievski said.
Macedonia's 1.4 million voters kick off the election season today in Yugoslavia. When three other republics -- Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina -- finish holding their first multiparty elections in more than 50 years in the next month, the political map of the former Communist-run federation will be transformed.
The election campaigns have revealed a desperate struggle between Communist and nationalist leaders for control of Yugoslavia's destiny, against a backdrop of the threat of civil war and economic ruin.
Yugoslavia's ethnically diverse population of 23.5 million is finding the transition from 45 years of one-party Communist rule to a multiparty system more painful than neighboring Hungary and Poland. Nationalist antagonisms have risen up to dominate economic issues in the election campaigns throughout all six republics.
Yugoslavia was always an unhappy mismatch between Croats and Slovenes -- Roman Catholic former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- and Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins, who were Orthodox by religion and with a wholly different historical experience under the Ottoman Empire. A large population of Albanians and assorted Moslems adds to the explosive nature of this ethnic cocktail.
Communist President Josip Broz Tito ruthlessly suppressed rumblings of discontent under the slogan of "brotherhood and unity." Dissidents spent long years in prison for challenging Tito's vision of harmony. But his death in 1980 removed the only force holding the country together.
Protests by the western republics of Croatia and Slovenia against subsidizing the poor republics in the south opened up the historical divisions between Roman Catholic and Orthodox peoples.
Angry at the slow pace of economic and political change in Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia broke with the Communist Party and staged multiparty elections last spring that brought center-right nationalist governments to power.
The two republics demand the reconstruction of Yugoslavia as a loose confederation of six independent states, a proposal that is anathema to the country's biggest republic, Serbia. As the largest ethnic group, the Serbs have formed large and militant minorities in several republics.
Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, says if the Yugoslav federation falls apart, Serbia will extend its borders to include Serbs in neighboring republics.
Mr. Milosevic's main opponent in Serbian elections Dec. 9 is the ultranationalist Vuk Draskovic, who calls for the expulsion of ethnic minorities and an even more aggressive policy against Serbia's neighbors.
Bosnia-Hercegovina is Yugoslavia in miniature. In this region, best known to the world as the site of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, which sparked World War I, elections Nov. 18 will see Croats, Moslems and Serbs pitted against one another in a struggle for ethnic dominance.
Conflicts between the six republics stir memories of the brutal period during World War II when hundreds of thousands were killed by rival Yugoslav armies. Nationalist politicians have whipped up fears of civil war and most voters, seeking protection, have divided along ethnic lines.
In the midst of ethnic turmoil, Prime Minister Ante Markovic advocates a parliamentary democracy. He sees free enterprise as the means to defuse the national friction.