Macedonia hopes for EU curb on Greece

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The Independent Online
STOIC in the face of a potentially devastating trade blockade by Greece, Macedonia has pinned its hopes on the European Union to resolve a dispute that has cast a shadow over this Balkan republic's success in avoiding the conflicts engulfing former Yugoslavia.

The Macedonian government has confined itself to an early protest at 'the astonishing fact that, while the international community makes enormous efforts aimed at peaceful settlement of the war in Bosnia, Greece, currently holding the presidency of the European Union, takes such measures against our . . . country'.

The small landlocked state of 2 million people is hoping that EU anger at arguably illegal Greek conduct will force Athens to back down on a week-old decision to cut non- humanitarian goods traffic across the Greece-Macedonia border.

In Brussels yesterday the European Commission President, Jacques Delors, intensified diplomatic pressure by writing to the Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Pa pandreou, demanding Athens take urgent steps to end its embargo. The Commission said that Mr Delors had expressed serious concerns about the legality of Greece's actions. The Turkish President, Suleyman Demirel, yesterday offered Macedonia's President, Kiro Gligorov, use of Turkish ports to beat the blockade.

Greece, however, has so far ignored pressure from the United States, Britain and five other EU countries that have recognised Macedonia. Athens is adamant that Macedonia must change its name, national flag and parts of its constitution, which it says implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

An initial wave of panic in Macedonia sent motorists rushing to petrol pumps, but calm quickly returned after the government said three months of oil supplies had been stockpiled. In parliament, deputies argued mildly over a minor customs bill or followed the Winter Olympics on television.

'We are just watching the Greeks make fools of themselves. What are we going to do, fight them?' asked the manageress of a central hotel.

But there is growing unease in Skopje about the consequences should Greece be stubborn. The economy is fragile and since UN sanctions cut off economic links with Serbia, 70 per cent of trade passes through the northern Greek port of Salonika, including all its oil needs. Alternative trade routes through Bulgaria and Albania are being prepared, but there is no railway and mountain roads will be more time-consuming, expensive and unsuitable for big trucks.

Fears about the economy are worsened by speculation about the possible motivation of the Greeks. A theatre of war for major powers that have carved up the country in the past century, Macedonia is ever wary of its neighbours. 'I read that six European Union countries are very mad with Greece. But still I am afraid. I have seen too many letters, conferences, commissions and delegates,' said Saso Ordanoski, a leading Macedonian commentator.

Macedonian suspicions are heightened by the fact that before Mr Papandreou torpedoed existing negotiations, Macedonia had clearly been prepared to compromise on the constitution, the Star of Vergina on the flag, and even on a new name like New Macedonia.

Conspiracy theories abound. The most obvious is that Mr Papandreou's Pasok party faces imminent local elections in northern Greece. But in Macedonia, some speculate that Greece and Serbia may try to stir up Macedonia's Albanian Muslim minority to force the Slavic minority elite into their Orthodox Christian camp. 'Serbia has never given up the dream of Macedonia, and their alliance with Greece is very strong. When the problem is finished in Bosnia, they will come here,' said Ljupco Georgievski, a nationalist leader in the Macedonian parliament.