Regional Tensions: Greece fears the Balkans could ignite and drag her into conflicts of the past

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The Independent Online
BEHIND THE conflict in Kosovo looms the threat of a wider Balkan war, igniting in Macedonia and engulfing neighbouring states in a throwback to the disputes at the start of the century. "The Macedonian question has been the cause of every great European war for the past 50 years," wrote John Reed in 1916, "until that is settled there will be no more peace either in the Balkans or out of them."

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been the main concern of Greek foreign policy as Balkan fighting moved south in the 1990s . Greece fears an influx of refugees and conflict with Turkey should it back the other side. Macedonia also has the same name as a Greek province, which Athens says implies a territorial claim.

Ethnically, Macedonia is a patchwork of Slavs, Albanians, gypsies, Turks, Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians. Ethnic Albanians, concentrated in the west, make up a quarter of the population. "Macedonia is an artificial state," one senior UN official said. "I give it less than two years of life since the fighting started in Kosovo [last March]."

Last year, the Kosovo Liberation Army declared that it aimed to unite with western Macedonia. The horrified reaction from Western capitals stopped such talk. But many KLA volunteers are from Macedonia, and the aspiration for a single state remains strong. One hopeful sign is that Macedonia's governing coalition contains both radical Slavs and Albanians. It means that ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have dropped talk of separatism or union with Kosovo, for now.

Diplomats fear that could change if Kosovo's fires are not extinguished by getting an international force into Kosovo and a peace agreement which gives Belgrade its principal demand - that its borders remain unchanged.

"The West doesn't care that 45 people were killed at Racak [in Kosovo, last month]," one official said. "Be under no illusions - it is geopolitical concerns that are determining policy."

There are several scenarios for disaster. One is that if full-scale war breaks out in Kosovo, arms and volunteers will flood across the border from western Macedonia, ethnic Albanians will break with the Slav majority in government and security forces will be sent to western towns, as happened in 1997. Conversely, bombing could unleash the Serbian security forces in Kosovo.

Up to now, the Serbs have held back for fear of provoking a Nato attack. "Once bombing starts, they could lose all restraint," said one Greek official. That would send refugees into Macedonia and Albania, filling camps with dispossessed ethnic Albanians bent on revenge. Albania is already highly unstable. Problems there, especially given the availability of weapons, would add to a separatist campaign by ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

Diplomats fear that such a conflict could see neighbouring states revive territorial claims: the Greeks to southern Albania, the Serbs to northern Macedonia and the Bulgarians to western Macedonia. It is not simply Kosovo which is at stake.