Pittsburgh -- It is tempting to see the announced secession from Yugoslavia of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia as a victory for democracy, as the latest and perhaps ultimate step in a contest between these ''Western-oriented, democratic'' republics and the ''hard-line Marxist'' regime in Serbia and the communists in the army. The reality is hardly so comforting. In all the Yugoslav republics, but particularly in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, the democratization of politics and the free elections of 1990 have produced nationalistic regimes that are veering toward totalitarianism in their militarization, rigid control of the press and use of the machinery of government. Ironically, the only major political force that supports democratic freedoms and a market economy is the federal government of Prime Minister Ante Markovic, a government that is an unelected carryover from the old one-party system because Slovenia and Serbia have not permitted federal elections to take place.
In 1990, the electoral message that worked in each republic was one of strong ethnic nationalism: that Slovenia is the state of Slovenes, Croatia the state of Croats, Serbia the state of Serbs, in which minorities would enjoy little protection. Yet the minorities are substantial: perhaps 15 percent in Slovenia, 25 percent in Croatia, and more than 30 percent in Serbia. In an inversion of the classic problem of democratic theory, which is the protection of minorities from a permanent majority, the politics of these republics has centered on the protection of the majority from the minority.
The tenor of the nationalistic politics of the ruling parties in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia might be compared to that of the American South in the 1950s and early '60s, when the way to power was to be most firm on the ''Negro problem.'' In American terms, the political spectrum of the party in power in Croatia might run from George Wallace circa 1963 on the left, to David Duke circa 1990 on the right -- and that does not include the real extremists, not yet in power.
In Serbia, extremists who verge on fascism are gaining in strength, in part in response to the chauvinism of the other republics, itself in part a response to the chauvinistic Serbian nationalist politics that Slobodan Milosevic used to come to power in 1987. The major difference is that Mr. Milosevic took control as a nationalist communist in what was then a one-party state, while the ruling parties of Croatia and Slovenia mounted their nationalist assaults when the one-party system had fallen.
The nations of Yugoslavia have historically had periods of good relations, but have also engaged in mutual hatred and strife. World War II in Yugoslavia was a brutal, multifaceted blend of resistance to occupation, civil war and communist revolution. A fascist regime installed in Croatia by the Germans had a state policy and practice of genocide against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, killing many thousands in concentration camps and in village massacres. At the same time, Serbs killed Croats and Muslims. Finally, at the end of the war, the victorious communists murdered thousands of Croat and Slovene prisoners, and executed the Serbian general Draza Mihailovic.
With such historical tensions, any regime that wanted to avoid trouble would be solicitous of the feelings of the minorities. However, the new regimes, having come to power on nationalistic platforms, are antagonistic toward the minorities within their borders. In Croatia, where more than 600,000 Serbs live, and where some areas are almost entirely Serb, the newly elected government in 1990 antagonized the minority by, first, instituting a state emblem that was very similar to that of the wartime fascist regime, and then began a process of removing Serbs from many jobs, particularly in the police. At the same time, the Croatian government armed an ethnically pure Croatian paramilitary force. In response, and goaded by the Serbian government, Serbs in a Serb-majority area of Croatia have armed themselves, and declared their secession from Croatia.
The republics have carried out a trade war between themselves, imposing blockades, special taxes and outright confiscation of assets of firms from other republics, in defiance of the federal constitution. Serbia has been the most egregious offender in this regard, but its moves have been answered by Croatia.