Kosovo Crisis: Will sparks spread from the `Balkan tinderbox'?

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The Independent Online
AS THE West prepares to drop the first bombs on Serbia, fears inevitably are being voiced that the conflict will throw the entire region into chaos.

The "Balkan tinderbox" 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. Again and again the public were treated to Bismarck's hoary remark that the whole region was not worth "the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier".

Balkan chaos theories have a long pedigree, dating back at the very least to the first and second Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, which involved Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire in a series of constantly shifting, short-lived combinations. In the first, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece fought against Turkey. In the second, Serbia, Greece and Romania fought against Bulgaria. Then there was the First World War, which began after a Serb assassin's bullet struck Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1914.

General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of the UN troops in Bosnia, revived the tinderbox theory yesterday on the 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 observers, and by many of the 2 million Macedonians. Serbia's southern neighbour peacefully declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. But the peace of Macedonia is deceptive. It is an inherently unstable state, in spite of the presence of more than 10,000 Nato peace-keepers 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.

Albania itself is another obvious worry. Tirana would find it extremely hard to stay aloof from all-out war on the ground.

Further afield, there are other potential actors in Serbia's unfolding drama - Turkey for one, 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 a stray missile.

What it does have is a very real stake in Macedonia, which Bulgarian nationalists have always considered an integral part of Bulgaria. Their still predatory interest in Macedonia is shared by the Serbs. Bulgaria and Serbia will both tolerate a neutral Macedonia.Neither will stand by and see it fall under the dominion of the other. So it is the collapse of Macedonia, rather than war in Serbia and Kosovo, that is most likely to make the Balkan "tinderbox" theory a reality.