BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- With the survival of their country at stake and economic collapse at hand, leaders of Yugoslavia's six republics made little progress in talks yesterday toward finding a formula for their common survival.
Meeting at a former hunting lodge on the Adriatic coastal resort of Split, the six presidents agreed to delegate their myriad points of dispute to expert working groups and pledged to settle Yugoslavia's future without resorting to military force.
In a statement that appeared to reflect the competing hopes of the six republics and the uncertainty of Yugoslavia's future, the leaders said that Yugoslavia could continue to exist as a "state community made up of equal nations in internationally recognized borders . . . only on the basis of each nation's right to self-determination, including secession."
In a letter sent to Prime Minister Ante Markovic that was discussed at the meeting, President Bush signaled Washington's interest in the six republics' remaining "within a single, democratic Yugoslavia."
Mr. Bush also urged the country not to back down from its shift to the free market, despite its current hardship, by sacking Mr. Markovic.
The leader of Serbia and of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, did not welcome the Bush missive. "We are a sovereign and free country. About our own premier, we shall decide, not any other foreign power," he said.
In remarks after their meeting, the leaders seemed eager to stake out their positions and to show their nationalist publics they would be tough as the real talks get under way.
Their answers to questions at a televised news conference suggested that their nine hours of discussions had done little to draw the six republics closer together.
Mr. Milosevic rebuffed Croatian and Slovenian demands for Yugoslavia to refashion itself as a confederation of sovereign states, saying such change could only happen through a nationwide referendum. Mr. Milosevic has also insisted that "all Serbs must live in one country," suggesting he would insist on a change in the border with Croatia.
Because Yugoslavia's 9 million Serbs make up the largest single group at 40 percent of the population, Slovenians and Croatians say the results of such a referendum would not be democratic.
"We don't want to stay in this kind of Yugoslavia," Milan Kucan, president of Slovenia, told the Associated Press in Split. "I am not optimistic."
"Every day the crisis gets deeper and deeper," he said at the news conference.
The economic divide between Serbia and the two northern republics, Slovenia and Croatia, appeared wide yesterday. As they dream of joining the European Community, Mr. Milosevic criticized the man in Belgrade most identified with the free market -- Prime Minister Markovic -- and suggested that Belgrade would try to slow economic reforms.