Macedonia leader asks Greece to be 'rational': Tony Barber talked to the President, who says that independence for the republic would bring benefits for anxious neighbours

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(First Edition)

PRESIDENT Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia has urged Greece to stop blocking Western recognition of his republic, saying that in the long term the Greeks will benefit from having a peaceful, stable state on their northern border. In an interview with the Independent, he described as 'irrational' the Greek demand that Macedonia should change its name in order to receive recognition.

'If it wasn't for this irrational demand on the part of the Greeks, then they would see that an independent Macedonia is to their advantage,' Mr Gligorov said. 'After all, with an independent Macedonia, they won't have a country with a strong army on their border, but rather a small and stable state. If we had got involved in the Yugoslav war, then there would have been fighting right on the Greek frontier.'

Greece has blockaded Macedonia for months and has formed a de facto alliance with Serbia to keep the republic weak. It refuses to recognise Macedonia under its present name partly on the grounds that Macedonia is a term of exclusive Greek heritage.

The Greeks also argue that Macedonia, the poorest of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia, may lay claim to a northern Greek province that bears the same name. However, the Macedonians have changed their constitution and renounced claims on other states.

Earlier this year, most European Community countries were inclined to extend recognition to Macedonia, but at last June's EC summit in Lisbon they bowed to Greek pressure and said the republic must change its name. Mr Gligorov suggested that the policy switch had been induced by a fear that Greece would not endorse the Maastricht treaty unless it got its way on Macedonia.

'It will be ever more difficult for the Greeks to justify what they are doing,' he said. 'There are no immediate benefits for them in this approach, and even fewer in the long term.'

Mr Gligorov said there was a grave risk that the Yugoslav conflict would spread from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the southern Balkans, sucking in the Serbian-ruled province of Kosovo, where 90 per cent of the population are ethnic Albanians. 'It is a great danger, particularly if the Serbs do not go down the road of dialogue and give the Albanians autonomy in principle, and also if the Albanians do not renounce the idea of a change of frontiers.' About one-quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people are ethnic Albanians, concentrated in the capital, Skopje, and the western part of the republic. They suffered discrimination in Communist Yugoslavia and, though conditions have improved in the last 18 months, some foresee such anarchy in the Balkans that the best way out is to create a Greater Albania, merging the Albanians of Kosovo, western Macedonia and Albania itself.

The Kosovo Albanian leadership denies expansionist ambitions, but points out that the Serbian military and police grip on the province is so oppressive that many Albanians see independence, possibly followed by union with Albania, as the only option.

Mr Gligorov said that if an explosion occurred in Kosovo, 'that would be very negative for Macedonia. First, it would lead to a large number of refugees and Macedonia couldn't cope with that. Also, the Albanians in Macedonia might try to help the Kosovo Albanians. Whatever happens, it could develop into an unstable situation.'