BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- How do you keep a country together when it has two alphabets, three main religions, four official languages, five major nationalities and six constituent republics?
The late charismatic Communist strongman, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, did so largely by force and extraordinary political skills. And since his death in 1980 -- and even before the old man died -- analysts have been predicting the breakup. Internecine tensions that long have simmered under the surface are exploding into violence with increasing frequency.
Yugoslavia's problem is that it has not been able to offer an acceptable image of common purpose for its many nationalities. Arguably there is no such thing as a Yugoslav. There are Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and others, who in some respects are utterly unlike one another.
Although of a common South Slav origin, they had never lived within a common state before the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Their history has been one of suffering and humiliation. Imperial wars, invasions and colonial rule have left a landscape of Gothic spires, Byzantine domes and Islamic mosques stained with blood.
If there is a moment that defined the country on the world stage, it was in 1948 when Tito, in a desperate political gamble, refused to take orders from Moscow and took his country out of the Soviet bloc.
The long and bitter ordeal in resisting Stalin became the crucial component in the mythology of Tito's Yugoslavia and its major unifying force.
Tito's Yugoslavia was an independent Communist country within Moscow's keep but beyond its grasp. It was the only European member of the Third World Non-Aligned Movement. It was the multiethnic federation engaged in an improbable experiment of nation building. During the Cold War, Tito became Europe's Fiddler on the Roof, balancing between East and West and obtaining economic benefits from both.
But in performing a brilliant balancing act, Tito was also building a trap for his country. For the main cohesive force of his regime -- keeping the Russians at bay -- was fundamentally negative.
Now that the Cold War no longer exists as a catalyst for unity, older -- occasionally ancient -- anxieties have re-emerged, and they are numerous and deep-seated.
The Roman Catholic Slovenes and Croats lived under Austro-Hungarian rule, which belonged to the world of European civilization. The Serbs and Macedonians, who are Eastern Orthodox, were plunged deep into the darkness and inertness that the Ottoman Turks imposed on the world they conquered.
In the days of the Yugoslav national revival in the 19th century, however, such intellectual and emotional differences were pushed aside by the burden of colonial subjugation. The Serbs, who are the most numerous, were the first to rebel against the Turks, wresting independence and firing up the imagination of Slav peasantry throughout the Balkans.
For almost a century the idea of independence fed a mad cycle of violence, insurrections, wars and conspiracies that culminated in the 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and touched off a world war. Out of the rubble wrought by World War I, the Yugoslav peoples finally emerged united, an offspring of Woodrow Wilson's doctrine of national self-determination.
The new state was a problem child from the start. The crux of the problem was the relationship between the two largest nations, Serbia and Croatia, where a common language but not much else is shared. Serbia's king, Alexander, became the ruler of Yugoslavia. This was the source of much trouble since the Serbs in general looked upon the new country as an extension of the borders of their former state. It took only a few years before the Croatian elite began to feel betrayed by Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav politics soon acquired its tragicomic aspects. Political parties were built around ethnic blocs. Plotting and violence became the order of the day. A Serbian deputy assassinated a prominent Croat politician in Parliament. Croat extremists in turn organized the assassination of King Alexander in 1934. Top Croatian leaders, while holding key government posts, secretly negotiated the breakup of Yugoslavia with Italian politicians. Serbian politicians flirted with Hitler, only to be ousted in a military coup that in turn invited Hitler's savage destruction of Alexander's Yugoslavia in 1941.
What followed can only be described as a tribal war. Hitler created an independent state of Croatia and installed a Croat fascist at its head. The brief re-emergence of Croatia as an independent entity was made under the leadership of men who brought back the Dark Ages and who carried out genocide against Serbs and Jews.
The Serb nationalists retaliated in kind, carrying out massacres of non-Serb populations.
With both Croat and Serb nationalist forces discredited, the Communists emerged victorious as the only party committed to the Yugoslav idea of the "fraternity and unity" of the South Slavs.
A fictitious federation was set up with Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia becoming constituent republics. A region between Serbia and Croatia was declared the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And the tiny Serbian state of Montenegro became the sixth constituent republic.
After Tito's death in 1980, the system began to unravel, but very slowly. His heirs could not escape the Titoist trap. None of them had a national constituency. There was nobody around with the kind of prestige and stature to act as the arbiter.
Finally, the end of the Cold War exposed the fatal weaknesses of Tito's Yugoslavia.