The "Balkan tinder-box" theory was frequently wheeled out by Western politicians in the early Nineties to justify a "hands off" policy towards the conflict then raging in Bosnia.
Balkan chaos theories date back to the first and second Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, which involved Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire. And then there was the First World War, which began after a shot was fired at the heir to the Habsburg throne in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of the UN troops in Bosnia, revived the tinder-box theory yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Warning of a possible "third Balkan war", he said: "There's a grave danger that an act of war carried out against Serbia by Nato will spread into Bosnia and possibly into Macedonia."
The general's worries about Macedonia are shared by most. Serbia's southern neighbour declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and is an inherently unstable state, in spite of more than 10,000 Nato peacekeepers on its northern border. Yesterday Macedonia closed its two border crossings with Kosovo, while President Kiro Gligorov appealed to Nato to lend his country extra security guarantees.
The flow of Albanian refuges into Macedonia already threatens to destabilise the country's explosive ethnic mixture, pitting the dominant Slavs against a large and restive Albanian minority. Relief organisation officials said about 1,000 Kosovars crossed the border in the past 24 hours alone.
Albania is another worry. Although the left-wing government is less inclined to pander to pan-Albanian rhetoric than its right-wing predecessor, Tirana would still find it extremely hard to stay aloof from all-out war on the ground, especially if a massive Serbian assault on the population threatened them with annihilation. Further afield, there isTurkey, the former ruling power in the Balkans and self-appointed protector of Balkan Muslims.
Then there is Bulgaria. Sofia has no direct interest in war with Belgrade, other than exaggerated worries that its nuclear power station might be hit by accident if missiles start flying around. What it does have is a very real stake in Macedonia, which nationalists have always considered an integral part of Bulgaria. Their predatory interest is shared by the Serbs, who ruled Macedonia in the 14th century and seized it back from Turkey - to the fury of the Bulgarians - in the Balkan wars.
So it is the collapse of Macedonia, rather than war in Serbia and Kosovo, that is most likely to make the Balkan "tinder-box" theory a reality.
Two countries that are not likely to join any new Balkan war are Romania and Greece. In Bucharest, there is principled opposition to outsiders interfering in a sovereign state. Today Kosovo, tomorrow Transylvania? But those worries are more than balanced out by a strong commitment to joining the EU and Nato.
The Greeks provided their Orthodox brothers with a valued diplomatic lifeline when Belgrade was at war in Bosnia, but ties have cooled since then. Greek diplomats are dismissing the chances of Athens being involved - or even affected - by air strikes on Serbia.Reuse content