While most of former communist Europe is taking hesitant and difficult steps toward democratic government and free-market economies, the small nation of Yugoslavia is in danger of falling apart and is even flirting with the specter of civil war.

The future of the splintered country remains very much in doubt as negotiations are scheduled over the next 90 days."Yugoslavia, as it was, doesn't exist anymore," was the way Borut Pahor put it during a Utah visit this week. Pahor, a former communist official turned free-market advocate, is a member of parliament in Slovenia, one of the six feuding republics that make up Yugoslavia.

Yet this uncertainty is not a new story for Yugoslavia. The nation - like several other Balkan states - was stapled together after World War I, but the ethnic mix was never comfortable. The country, about the size of Wyoming, has a population of 23 million and four official languages, some in different alphabets. Eleven other tongues are spoken.

Old racial and ethnic hatreds and fears, never far from the surface in the best of times, are bubbling anew. Even during World War II, while Yugoslavia was occupied by Nazi troops, ethnic groups of partisans fought each other as well as the Germans.

After the war, Marshal Tito, a communist leader, seized control and managed to hold the country together, though he broke with Stalin to establish his own brand of communism. Separatist movements stayed quiet out of fear of being annexed by the Soviet Union.

When Tito died in 1980, the country was run by a sort of committee, but in recent years, as democratic reforms have taken place, the old desires for independence have once more become a subject of fierce debate and even threats.

Pahor says the divisions are more economic than ethnic. But the most threatening group are the Serbs in the Republic of Serbia. They make up more than a third of the population, control most of the armed forces and have the harshest old-style, repressive government.

Several of the republics already have voted for independence, but Serbia may try to keep them together by force.

The next few months of negotiation will decide whether the Serbs resort to war and Yugoslavia retreats into the kind of government the rest of Eastern Europe has abandoned, or whether a loosely-knit federation of states will turn to the West and economic freedom and democracy.

Like some other newly free states in Eastern Europe, the people of Yugoslavia must learn to live with differences and tolerate pluralism. Failure to do so will plunge the country into a replay of its own dismal past.