BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Talks between Yugoslav leaders on halting the nation's slide toward possible civil war collapsed with a boycott by Croatia and a walkout by the Slovenian president, who said he will demand the opening of talks on the total 'dissolution' of the multi-ethnic federation.
Just before Slovenian President Milan Kucan's departure Friday, Yugoslav President Borisav Jovic warned members of the eight-man collective presidency that he would take unspecified measures to prevent 'complete chaos,' an apparent reference to his power to order intervention by the communist-led Yugoslav military.
'The state presidency comes to this utterly dramatic and grave situation. We shall resign if we cannot do anything, or we shall do what we have to do under the law,' he said according to a transcript of the session provided by the national news agency, Tanjug.
The meeting was the third held this year by Yugoslavia's political hierarchy in a bid to resolve a deep feud over the future of the six- republic nation. Non-communist Sloveniaand Croatia want the nation converted into a confederation of independent states and Marxist-ruled Serbia, the Serbian-dominated army and a majority of presidency members want it to remain a socialist federation.
'As far as the state presidency of Yugoslavia is concerned, things are very clear: We have a situation of the complete collapse of the country and an impossibility to reach a political agreement,' acknowledged Jovic, a hard-line Serbian communist.
His comments were echoed by Kucan, who told reporters after his return to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, 330 miles west of Belgrade, that he was abandoning the confederation concept.
'It is becoming evident that there are less and less possibilities for Yugoslavia to exist further even with our earlier suggested concept of confederation,' Kucan said. 'It is becoming more realistic to start discussions about dissolution only.'
Slovenia and Croatia, whose rightwing nationalist governments ousted communists in Yugoslavia's first multi-party polls last April, floated the confederation idea in a bid to strike a compromise with Serbia's Marxist president, Slobodan Milosevic.
Kucan said that Slovenia's ruling United Democratic Coalition would submit to the legislature on Feb. 20 'a formal act for the beginning of dissolution negotiations' to end the often-fractious union of six main ethnic groups of three major religions forged in 1918 from the remnants of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of World War I.
'This is the latest political decision of the republic: to propose at the federal level an agreement for disengagement,' Slovenian Prime Minister Lojze Peterle told an earlier news conference in Ljubljana.
Officials and foreign diplomats fear the crisis could lead to civil war, pointing to the near-conflict Jan. 25 between some 43,000 Croatian police and the military, which readied a crackdown after accusing members of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union of illegally importing arms for a revolt that would include the slayings of soldiers, their families and members of the republic's Serbian minority.
A last-minute accord averted strife. Since then, Serbia's state- controlled media has been whiping up anti-Croatian sentiments with an intense propaganda campaign based on the army's charges.
The presidency meeting in Belgrade lasted six hours, the entire time consummed by a debate over whether it should even be held because of a boycott by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Yugoslav Vice President Stipe Mesic, Croatia's representative on the collective head of state, officials said.
Kucan walked out after two hours, objecting to Jovic's insistence that the meeting go forward without Tudjman and Mesic and angered over the presense outside the building of some 5,000 Serbian demonstrators staging a virulent anti-Croatian protest that prompted the Croatian boycott.
The Tanjug transcript showed that the leaders of Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina sided with Kucan, criticizing Jovic, who is regarded as a key ally of Milosevic and the army.
'These demonstrations are directed against them (Croatia). The host should have taken into account that such things do not happen,' Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic said.
Tudjman said that he asked Jovic on Thursday to hold the session outside Belgrade. He said Jovic at first agreed, but later changed his mind.
After the meeting, Jovic met with representatives of the demonstrators, who he applauded for serving 'peace ... and progress.'
The rally was sponsored by the virtually unknown Women's Movement for Safeguarding Yugoslavia, which denied any links to Serbia's government even though hundreds of protesters were carried to Belgrade on state- owned buses.
The protesters shouted 'Croatian Ustashi,' echoing Serbian media charges that Tudjman's government is a reincaration of the Ustashi, a pro-Nazi extremist group that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Christian Orthodox Serbs, gypsies and Jews during World War II in a macabre plan to create a 'pure' Roman Catholic Croatia.
Many diplomats and political analysts believe the anti-Croatian campaign is being whipped up by Milosevic to divert public attention away from his republic's dire economic woes, which have left thousands of workers without pay for months and prompted threats of a general strike.