At issue is the procedure under which the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia should receive international recognition. Western governments fear that unless the republic is accepted as an independent state, the conflicts that have already engulfed Croatia and Bosnia will spread south and suck in Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Turkey.
Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has refused to permit European Community recognition of the republic under the name of Macedonia - on the grounds that this is a term of exclusive Greek heritage. But a compromise seemed in sight last week that would have allowed the republic to become a United Nations member under the temporary name of 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'.
At the last minute, a fresh argument arose in the shape of the republic's flag, which bears the emblem of a sun with 16 rays. The dispute, which seems abstruse to many Europeans, is profoundly important both to Greeks and to the Slav inhabitants of the former Yugoslav republic. They see the quarrel as an epic struggle for their national identities.
'This kind of problem can only occur in the Balkans, where symbols and myths take on an exaggerated importance,' said Kiro Gligorov, the President of the former Yugoslav republic.
The flag in question is deep red, with a bright yellow sun in the middle from which 16 points spread out. This is the Vergina Sun, the emblem of the ancient royal dynasty of Macedonia. It decorated the funeral cask of Philip of Macedonia, which archaeologists discovered in Greece in 1977.
Greece argues that, by adorning their flag with the sun, the Slav Macedonians are usurping ancient Greek history and laying implicit claim to the region of northern Greece that, like the former Yugoslav republic, bears the name of Macedonia. The Greek parliament recently proclaimed the Vergina Sun an official Greek symbol, and the emblem appears on all sorts of ordinary items in Greece from bus tickets and badges to ashtrays and wrapping paper.
However, the Slav Macedonians deny that they have territorial claims on Greece. They say the Greek campaign is part of an effort to strip them of their separate Slavic nationhood.
They also accuse Greece of conniving with Serbia in a blockade that has reduced their economy to ruins and has left the republic vulnerable to partition. Greece's Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, who is one of the few Western leaders to maintain contacts with Serbia, travelled there this week for talks with the Yugoslav President, Dobrica Cosic.
At a session of the Macedonian parliament last week in Skopje, some deputies said that 'the backbone of the Macedonian state and its people will be broken if the temporary description of 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' is accepted'. They contended the compromise would enable Greece to argue that the republic might have been called Macedonia in the old Yugoslavia, but would have no right to use the name in the future.
The main opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, said the formulation 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' would provide a legal pretext for Serbia to annex the republic. Between the two world wars, the republic was known as southern Serbia, and some Serbian activists there are urging Mr Milosevic's government to intervene on their behalf.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content