At issue is what name should be used by the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia in order to win general international recognition. But beneath that argument lies an explosive mixture of ethnic and territorial rivalries which, according to all parties to the dispute, threaten to touch off a war even more dangerous than the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The republic's Slav leaders want to call their state Macedonia and point out that some countries, including Russia, Bulgaria and Turkey, have already recognised it under that name. But Greece has blocked EC recognition for a year on the grounds that Macedonia is historically a Greek term and its use by a neighbouring state implies a claim on the northern Greek region of Macedonia. The last EC summit, in Lisbon in June, accepted the Greek position, but since then the prospect of a war in the southern Balkans has made the Community desperate to find a formula for recognition.
In the run-up to the Edinburgh summit, which starts on 11 December, a special EC envoy, Robin O'Neill, has visited Athens and Skopje, Macedonia's capital, in search of a compromise. One possible solution is to let the republic call itself Macedonia for internal purposes but use another name, such as 'the Republic of Skopje', on the international scene.
This appears unacceptable to Macedonia's leaders, who fear it would leave a question-mark over their people's identity and make it vulnerable to territorial claims, notably from Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania. Greece has no territorial ambitions but does not recognise Macedonians as a nationality.
Another solution would be to let the republic use the term Macedonia as an adjective rather than as a noun. Under that formula, the country could be called 'the Macedonian Republic of the Vardar', after its main river. However, one Greek official said: 'Greek sensitivities are such that there is no great enthusiasm for this position.'
The issue has united all main Greek political parties, the press and practically all Greeks. The main EC countries were reluctant earlier this year to press the Greeks too hard because it could have jeopardised Greek endorsement of the Maastricht treaty.
Privately, Greek officials say the Prime Minister, Constantine Mitsotakis, has little room for compromise because his New Democracy Party has a majority of only one, or at best two, in parliament. The slightest concession could cause his government to fall and plunge Greece into an election campaign in which politicians would denounce each other as traitors on the Macedonian issue, a sacred national cause.
The next elections are due in April 1994. 'If there were early elections, before the national question has been solved, it would be a recipe for disaster and confrontation,' one official said.
Greece has agreed to guarantee the borders of the former Yugoslav republic, and says it will extend economic aid so long as it drops the name Macedonia.
But if the EC forces premature recognition, the Greeks say, then Europe could face a repetition of last April's crisis in Bosnia. At that time the EC ignored Bosnian Serb opposition and recognised the republic, and a war started within days. A big Greek concern is that the Albanians of Yugoslav Macedonia - who make up 20 to 40 per cent of the republic's two million people, depending on who you believe - will be drawn into a conflict over the Serbian-ruled province of Kosovo, whose overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian people have suffered severe discrimination for the past five years.
If that happens, an exodus of Albanian refugees into Greece is likely, and the Greek government would be tempted to close its northern borders.
Another Greek fear is that a new Slav-ruled state calling itself Macedonia would prove attractive to inhabitants of parts of northern Greece, where Slavic-speaking people still live. Up to 100,000 Slavs left this region as a result of the Greek civil war of 1946-49 and most settled in Yugoslav Macedonia, where they and their descendents form a vocal irredentist lobby.
How many Slavic-speakers remain in northern Greece is open to dispute. Greece has not published official figures for them since 1951, when it numbered them at 41,000 but unofficial Greek sources say that Slav Macedonian activists are still campaigning in northern Greece.Reuse content