Greeks back defiance on Macedonia

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The Independent Online
DO NOT mention 'Macedonia' in Greece unless you have hours to spare and a doctorate in Balkan history. The row over the former Yugoslav republic pits Greece against its partners in the European Union and Nato, and has left Athens isolated. But at home the Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, has the support of the vast majority, and they cannot understand why they have been left in the lurch.

That support explains why the country has gone to the brink of confrontation with Brussels. Tomorrow, if Athens has not lifted its block on trade between the port of Salonika and Skopje, the European Commission will send the case to the European Court of Justice. The Commission says there is doubt whether the blockade is compatible with Greece's obligation under EU law. Greece says the Commission's stance is 'inappropriate and contradictory', and accuses Skopje of irredentism.

The most worrying aspect of the affair is the way the country has become so at odds with its allies. Banners, flags and placards proclaim 'Macedonia is Greek'. Barmen, taxi-drivers and diplomats produce maps and pamphlets. The national airline, Olympic, shows films on the subject.

For the past two years the issue has been cropping up wherever foreign ministers met with their Greek counterpart. Greece's EU and Nato partners held off recognising the state in the hope a deal could be reached. But patience waned and early this year the United States joined several EU countries in recognising the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Under fire in his party for standing by while Nato and the EU tightened the noose around Serbia, a traditional Greek ally, Mr Papandreou raised the stakes and closed the border. 'It was an act of despair,' said one official. It seems to have been done without consulting senior foreign- ministry officials, possibly even the Foreign Minister, Karolos Papoulias. Diplomats admit a possibility is that Mr Papandreous wants to weaken Skopje, force it into a corner and profit from the chaos that follows. They discount reports of Greek military movements on the border.

Negotiations brokered by Hans van den Broek, the EU Commissioner for external political affairs, have come to little. Talks in New York between officials from Athens and Skopje are due to take place today. The signs are not promising. Cyrus Vance, the United Nations negotiator, is rumoured to be close to resignation.

So far, the impact of Greek sanctions is said to be relatively slight. Skopje has about two months' oil stocks. As those run out they will have to be supplemented with higher- cost imports from Bulgaria, adding to the country's inflation. The instability the West fears could trigger refugee flows, exacerbating Macedonia's problems, particularly if Serbia turns south now the war in Bosnia is reaching endgame.

The neighbouring Serbian province of Kosovo, with its ethnic Albanian population, is a powder-keg. The Greeks are suspicious of American intentions and mistrustful of the Germans, with their traditional alliance with Croatia. France and Britain they regard as playing the Great Power game. The possible presence of Turkish troops in Bosnia fills them with horror.

If Skopje weakens, the US and Europe would almost certainly assist it, creating insecurity in Athens. If the military situation changes rapidly, Greece is in a volatile situation: no one will bet what might happen. Refugee flows or human-rights abuses in the region could turn a complex and highly politicised row into just what the West has sought to avert: a wider war.