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Keeping the Peace / UN: The next war? Balkans choke on a poisoned fruit salad: Macedonia's bid for independence is reviving a deadly identity crisis. Tony Barber reports from Salonica

YOU CAN see why the French call a fruit salad une macedoine. Everything about Macedonia - its history, borders and ethnic identity - is mixed up. The very name is the subject of a dispute so serious that Western governments fear the region may plunge into war for the fourth time this century. Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia, Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia all say they hope to avoid war. But pride, fear, ambition and hatred are coming together in a potentially devastating combination.

'The phantoms haunting the battlefields of 1912, 1913 and the two world wars have emerged from the dark pages of history,' according to Turkey's Foreign Minister, Hikmet Cetin.

'We are the most peaceful people in the Balkan area,' said Ioannis Tsaluhidis, secretary-general of Greece's Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace. 'But the risk of conflict is high.'

At the root of the dispute lie two questions: what is Macedonia, and who are the Macedonians? Most Greeks are in no doubt: Macedonia is a region of northern Greece, and Macedonians are the 2.5 million Greeks, or a quarter of the country's population, who live there. The leaders of the former Yugoslav republic are equally sure: Macedonia is their country's name, and Macedonians are the Slavs who form the majority of its population. And then Bulgarian nationalists say Macedonia is properly part of Bulgaria and Macedonians are Bulgarians, and Serbian nationalists say Macedonia is really southern Serbia and Macedonians are Serbs.

The latest crisis developed as a result of Yugoslavia's break-up. Following the example of others, the southernmost Yugoslav republic declared independence last year and sought recognition under the name of Macedonia, which it has used since its creation in 1944. Greece blocked European Community recognition, arguing that Macedonia was a Greek term dating back 2,700 years and that its use by a Slav-ruled state implied a claim on northern Greek territories. The Greeks said they would permit recognition under any other name - say, 'The Republic of Skopje', after its capital, or 'the Vardar Republic', after its main river - but not Macedonia.

'For the Greeks, the name is a cherished historical feature, an inseparable element of the Greek cultural heritage,' says the Greek historian Evangelos Kofos. 'Understandably, it is highly unlikely to expect them to consent to the arbitrary appropriation of the Macedonian name by a Slavic people across the frontiers.'

Historically, Macedonia refers to an area covering northern Greece, western Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav republic, and this means territorial claims have been hard to bury. Bulgaria briefly occupied most of the area in 1878, and tried to win it back in the 1912-1913 Balkan conflicts and in the two world wars. Officially, Bulgaria has renounced its claims, and it even recognised the new republic as Macedonia. However, Bulgaria refuses to accept that there is a distinct Slav Macedonian nation and language, so its neighbours fear that one day it may revive its ambitions.

What alarms the Greeks more, however, is Slav Macedonian nationalism. They boil with rage at maps produced in Skopje that show Salonica, the capital of Greek Macedonia, under the Slavic name Solun, and imply that a Slav-ruled Greater Macedonia should extend as far as the Aegean Sea. It matters little to them that the republic changed its constitution last January to rule out expansion. The leaders in Skopje, they say, still claim a right to protect 'ethnic Macedonians' outside their republic, and that means the threat to Greece has not gone away.

To promote their causes, both sides have enlisted the support of men who died more than 2,000 years ago. In the Greek corner is Herodotus, 'the father of history', who said the Macedonians were Greeks. In the Slav corner is Demosthenes, the orator who called Philip of Macedonia a barbarian rather than a Greek.

For modern Greeks, to question their links with classical times is not just an ethnic slur, it is virtually a casus belli. 'Tampering with this image is bound to stimulate almost biological reflexes,' Mr Kofos notes.

As far as recent history goes, the Greeks have a strong argument when they say that Tito, the late Yugoslav Communist leader, caused a lot of the trouble. Although some form of Slav Macedonian identity can be traced to the late 19th century, it was not until Tito created Yugoslav Macedonia in 1944 that the nation- building process really took off.

Whereas the Slavs of the area might once have thought they were Serbs or Bulgarians, from 1944 they were encouraged to think of themselves as Macedonians, with their own history, language and culture. It helped that Bulgaria had been on the Nazi side in the war and had a pretty ghastly human rights record under communism. With that in mind, people in Yugoslav Macedonia were not inclined to call themselves Bulgarians.

Tito's aim was to create a Communist South Slav federation that would have included parts of Greece and Bulgaria in a Greater Macedonia. To this end, he backed the Communists in the Greek civil war of 1946-49. Until he halted his support because of his break with Stalin, about 40 per cent of the Communist forces were Slav Macedonians, posing a simultaneous ethnic, territorial and ideological threat to Greece.

The weakness in the Greek case is that, however artificial Tito's creation was in 1944, the Slavs of Yugoslav Macedonia undoubtedly see themselves as a nation now. It would strike a Slav of 40 years or younger there as bizarre to stop calling himself Macedonian.

However, a compromise on the name dispute remains elusive. A name such as 'The Slav Republic of Macedonia' might prove unacceptable to the Albanians, who form between 20 and 40 per cent of the 2 million population (the republic's other groups include Bulgarians, Serbs, Gypsies, Vlachs and Tsintsars, who speak a kind of Romanian, and Torbeshi who are Muslim Slavs).

The Albanians want equal status with the Slav Macedonians and are watching with concern as their fellow Albanians suffer in the Serb-ruled province of Kosovo. A war in Kosovo would almost certainly spread to Macedonia and cause a huge refugee problem for Greece, as well as drawing in Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Then history would repeat itself - not as farce but as tragedy.

(Map omitted)