Inside File: Macedonia? It might as well be Corfu, Bill

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NOW and then, when President Bill Clinton is under particular pressure to present a positive contribution on former Yugoslavia, he hints at the need to reinforce peace-keeping efforts not in Bosnia but in the Macedonian Republic. Here, it might be assumed, is an attempt at that all too rare phenomenon - preventive peace-keeping. For all its problems, Macedonia is not yet the scene of ethnic cleansing, but it has the potential components to become one.

Yet Mr Clinton is not meeting with universal praise. Sources in Skopje said yesterday that Mr Clinton's hints at sending troops had taken President Kiro Gligorov by surprise. The latter has since gone out of his way to deny he has requested any troops. What is more, Mr Gligorov says he was assured in a recent telephone conversation with Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, that there 'would be no decision to send troops unless Macedonia agreed'. All this suggests a less than heartfelt welcome for what would amount to the first US ground deployment in the Balkans.

Mr Clinton's hints come at a time when he is under attack on two fronts: at home, for failing to stir the allies into military action in Bosnia, and in Europe, for failing to contribute peace-keepers on the ground. As one diplomat said: 'We all know what this is about. It is to answer objections that the Americans are not doing enough, while avoiding sending troops where they're really needed.' A less restrained European official said: 'Why doesn't Clinton just send his troops to Corfu?'

A reinforcement would require a new Security Council resolution. This could originate in a request from the commanders of Unprofor, the severely stretched UN peace-keeping force in former Yugoslavia, to the UN Secretary-General; the UN chief would then cast around for a contributor nation. Such a request would afford the Americans an untainted opportunity to make their contribution.

However, Unprofor sources said this week the body was not requesting reinforcement of the 800-strong Nordic battalion in Macedonia at this time. 'It's pretty quiet there at the moment,' said one UN source. 'Clinton's floated the idea, but I suspect he's just trying to get out of a noose.' The Macedonia battalion was fully occupied at the moment; another 200 might be needed, but only if the UN wanted Unprofor to become more active in the area. But in that case, it would make sense to use further Nordic troops rather than confuse the logistics by bringing in 200 Americans.

The US could, as a member of the Security Council, table a resolution itself. But this may be asking for it. It is bound to prompt a chorus of protests that if the US has troops to contribute, why does it not join the effort in Bosnia? 'I'm sure the French, for one, would oppose it,' one UN source said. He was bearing in mind, for instance, a French diplomat who said in response to the US proposed air strikes in Bosnia: 'We would like some evidence of the Americans below 30,000ft.'

That peace-keeping in Macedonia should become a political football is a pity. It is well known that Western policy on the Balkans has been sorely lacking in preventive measures. Having assisted in the creation of Macedonia as an independent state - Greece's objections not withstanding - the West has a duty to prevent it collapsing.

The common phrase bandied about to argue for reinforcement is 'to monitor possible aggression from Serbia'. Yet the potential ethnic problem lies between Slav Macedonians and the republic's big Albanian community. Some tension exists already; Mr Gligorov's government has failed to reflect the ethnic mix. In the event of an explosion among Albanians in Kosovo or the Sandzak, it is unlikely their brethren in Macedonia would stand idly by. There would be a massive Albanian influx into Macedonia, where Albanians already form at least 20 per cent. The scenario would pit the Albanians against the Slav Macedonians, and by extension the Serbs.

Another consideration further down the line is Bulgaria's historical claim on Macedonia: although the present leadership in Sofia is not keen to revive the claim at the moment, there would be no certainties in the event of a total collapse in Macedonia. Bulgaria has recognised Macedonia as a state, but not as a nation - primarily, it says, because it does not want to give Skopje a claim to the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. This is a similar objection to Greece's claim that Skopje harbours designs on Macedonians living in Greece. Yet it is the Bulgarians stepping into a Macedonian power vacuum which Greek diplomats hint at as their biggest fear.

Whatever Mr Clinton's intentions, it is clear there is much thinking left to be done on the subject. Nor have the international peace negotiators made much contact with the ethnic Albanian leaders. With Douglas Hurd expected in the region soon, a dialogue with them might constitute a start.