Yugoslavia, once a tightly controlled communist dictatorship under Marshal Tito, appears to be cracking at the seams.

Demonstrations, strikes, riots, and tough counter-measures by the government continue to erupt in different parts of the small nation.Three things are going wrong in Yugoslavia all at the same time: (1) The economy is in shambles, with 217 percent inflation, a $21 billion debt, and unemployment over 15 percent; (2) political unrest and anger, partially due to harsh crackdowns by police and the army against strikes and demonstrations; (3) old hatreds in this ethnically diverse country have led to new clashes between ethnic and religious groups.

All of these events have Yugoslavia's leaders afraid the nation is getting out of control. They are vowing to do what is necessary to prevent the "tearing down" of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia. Tito died in 1980.

The demonstrations and strikes are not small events. As many as 100,000 people have turned out in some protests. They involve factory workers, miners, ordinary citizens, and students - a broad-based participation in this nation of 23 million. Some are declaring they will fight back if authorities continue to use violence to quell disturbances.

Given the hardening attitudes, the two sides appear to be on a collision course.

Surprisingly, the unrest comes in a nation that has relaxed many of the earlier hard-line restrictions. Like Poland, Yugoslavia's troubles have come at a time when there is less repression, rather than more. A taste of freedom and the thought that things can get better are sometimes powerful stimulants.

Yugoslavia has always been something of a maverick in the communist system. Tito was the first in the communist bloc to defy Stalin and follow his own path to "socialism." For a time, it appeared that the Soviet Union might invade, but the danger passed.

Over the years, Yugoslavia has become more open, less of a police state. But it still is no democracy and Communist Party rule is in the hands of about 50 party chieftains - who are the target of much of the demonstrations.

Ironically, the Yugoslavian government has proposed solving its economic woes by introducing more free-market rules. This ultimately should lead to more freedom.

Yet the danger is that before such economic changes have a real chance to work, the government's crackdown against civil uprisings and ethnic quarrels could cause a return to politically harsher, darker days in Yugoslavia.