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While other European nations were breaking down barriers and drawing closer, divisions deepened in Yugoslavia. This week, it may become the first country in post-World War II Europe to disintegrate.

The question for Yugoslavs and the world is: Can the country break up peacefully, perhaps even reuniting later in a different form, or will it descend into a maelstrom of ethnic violence?"We worry, frankly, about history repeating itself," Secretary of State James A. Baker III said after talks last week with leaders of Yugoslavia's six republics. Ethnic strife in the Balkans led to World War I.

The northern republic of Slovenia and its neighbor, Yugoslavia's second largest republic of Croatia, seem determined to break away, regardless of U.S. and European warnings that they will get no diplomatic recognition.

Both republics - the country's richest - have said they will declare independence before the week is out.

Presidents Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Milan Kucan of Slovenia met Saturday and pledged to recognize each other's independence and closely cooperate in defense, foreign policy and the economy.

Both have said, however, that they are willing to continue talks with other republic leaders on making Yugoslavia a loose association of sovereign states.

Yugoslavia is split by history and nationalist politics. With six republics, four official languages, at least 24 ethnic groups and Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox religions, it has been fragile since first formed as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918.

The Communist federation that emerged after World War II held together because of its strong founder, Josip Broz Tito, and Western support for his defiance of Moscow.

Since Tito died in 1980, rising nationalism has combined with the democratic wave that swept Communists from power throughout eastern Europe to undo Tito's state.

The process culminated last year in elections in all six republics.