Greece lifts its blockade on oil to Macedonia

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THE Greek government said yesterday that it was lifting an embargo on oil deliveries to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, whose relations with Greece are under serious strain. The blockade caused havoc to the Macedonian economy and was seen by the republic's leaders as an attempt to punish them for seeking international recognition as an independent state.

As the Greeks announced their move, Lord Owen, the European Community mediator, and Cyrus Vance, representing the United Nations, flew to Athens for talks with the Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis. A Greek government spokesman said the main focus would be the war in Bosnia- Herzegovina, but EC and UN officials said the discussions were also expected to cover Greece's refusal to recognise Macedonia.

The oil blockade has been in effect intermittently since January, and the Macedonian authorities estimate that it has cost their republic more than pounds 650m in losses, chiefly to the farming and transport industries. In a letter two weeks ago to the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, the Macedonian President, Kiro Gligorov, said: 'Agricultural produce in Macedonian fields is rotting, and it cannot be transported anywhere since the machinery runs on oil . . . The consequences of the Greek oil blockade could be catastrophic for Macedonia.'

A poor, landlocked country of only 2 million people, Macedonia is vulnerable to Greek pressure because most of its oil arrives through the northern Greek port of Salonika. The government was recently forced to ration each person to two gallons of petrol a month. Greece's refusal to allow international recognition of Macedonia has also prevented the republic from receiving aid from the EC, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Greece extended its oil embargo to all six former Yugoslav republics last month after it was accused of allowing shipments to reach Serbia and Montenegro in violation of UN sanctions. However, the Macedonians suspected that the principal aim behind the measure was less to deny oil to Serbia, which has maintained cordial relations with Greece, than to intensify pressure on Macedonia.

Greece has blocked Western recognition of the republic partly on the grounds that Macedonia is a term of exclusive Greek heritage. The Greeks also contend that its use implies that Macedonia has a claim on the northern Greek province of the same name. Officially, Greece says it would recognise Macedonia under a name such as 'the Republic of Skopje', but this is unacceptable to the Macedonians.

Since Greece denies that it has a Macedonian minority, it has also taken exception to a clause in Macedonia's constitution that refers to the rights of Macedonians living in neighbouring countries. The Macedonians altered their constitution in January to make clear they had no designs on their neighbours' territory, but Greece joined Serbia soon afterwards in a blockade of Macedonia, bringing the economy close to its knees.

Other EC countries and the United States at first dismissed the Greek arguments as unreasonable, but they bowed to Greek pressure earlier this year and said they would not recognise Macedonia until it changed its name. Western countries fear that unless the Macedonian question is speedily resolved the republic could fall prey to the kind of conflict that engulfed Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.