Macedonia seeks to evade hawk's claws: Siege of a tiny state tilts the Balkan balance

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

AT ARMY headquarters in Skopje, the Macedonian law professor observed, rightly, that his presence as a civilian minister of defence would have horrified the stiff-backed Yugoslav generals once charged with defending this landlocked corner of the Balkans. That was when it was trapped between Warsaw Pact Bulgaria, Nato member Greece and the Maoists who ran Albania.

The velvet curtains, rubber plants and sumptuous chairs of the former commanding officer's suite remain. But the balance of dangers around Macedonia has tilted in a manner the generals could not have predicted. Given the way the new Macedonian government has bent over backwards to avoid conflict, it hardly seems fair. But fair is a word rarely heard in the Balkans.

New problems began piling up for this state of 2.2 million people just as hopes were rising that peace in former Yugoslavia might spread from the ceasefire around Sarajevo. Nobody in Macedonia thinks this is a coincidence. They believe their neighbours Greece and Serbia are stirring up trouble to distract Western attention from Bosnia.

A Greek blockade since 16 February of Macedonia's main trade route has already forced factory lay-offs and endangers a stiff IMF-backed stabilisation programme, signed earlier this month. And if the economy contracts further, unrest among Macedonia's large Albanian Muslim minority will worsen. Already it threatens the ethnic Albanian role in a fragile coalition government with Macedonian Slavs, the Christian Orthodox two-thirds majority.

Another wild card in the situation is Serbia's oppression of the Albanian majority in the adjacent Serbian province of Kosovo. If war breaks out there, few doubt that Macedonian Albanians will become involved, threatening to spread the conflict over the border. Pessimists see Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and even Turkey being sucked into an all-out Balkan war.

'To escape from the claws of the hawks, we have to run,' said the Macedonian Minister of Defence, Vlado Popovski. 'We made our way so far, but it was hard. The first year and a half after we announced independence in 1991, we had no name, no legitimacy . . . We were living in a grey zone. The danger was worse than now.'

Western countries, citing Greek objections, continue to hedge about references to the Republic of Macedonia. But at least the United States and six European Union nations now recognise Macedonia's existence, an important diplomatic underpinning for the small contingent of Unprofor soldiers that has been monitoring the ambitions of Macedonia's neighbours since late 1992.

With no tanks, no warplanes and just 15,000 half-trained men in its army, Macedonian leaders have had to put their faith in international support. Mr Popovski said: 'We would lose any war . . . we can only hope the strength of any attacker would be offset by the other pretenders to our territory.'

In many ways, Macedonia seems worthy of Western support. The government is one of the few in the Balkans not dominated by runaway nationalists. It is the only former Yugoslav state that has largely avoided violence so far. Not even Albanian nationalist radicals will condemn out of hand the measured 77-year-old president, Kiro Gligorov.

'The best step they took was to allow the old Yugoslav army to take away all their weapons,' said an underemployed Albanian trader in Tetovo, Macedonia's main Albanian city. 'The cost of repairing just one city would have been more than they were worth.'

Local attitudes, such as the general policy of non-confrontation, are laid-back. Ethnic problems are for discussion, not conflict. 'Macedonians would rather have a beer than a brawl,' said one man sipping local rakia brandy at one of Skopje's hundreds of well-kept Central European cafes, espresso coffee bars and small Greek-style restaurants.

The capital, reflecting its geography, population and the devastation of the great earthquake in 1963, is a Macedonian salad of architectural styles. A dozen Ottoman-era minarets and mosque domes tower over the tiled roofs of the old town. A stone-vaulted medieval bridge lies between concrete roadways over the full Vardar River. Brutal socialist public buildings stand beside ultra-modern theatre complexes and huge shopping arcades full of imported goods.

The country appears to reflect a relatively well-managed balance between a dominant state sector and upstart private import-export firms. Telephones work, things happen on time and ministers give an impression of competence. Instead of whipping up the population against Greece, they seem to be working on how to get around their latest problem.

Their first priority has been to revive an 'East-West corridor' from Italy to Istanbul, through the central Balkans and the poor Albanian port of Durres. A protocol has been signed in Bulgaria to revive a project, which, if the money can be found, will link Macedonia, Albania, Turkey and Bulgaria with a new motorway, railway, fibre-optic communications and a natural gas pipeline.

Before the Greek blockade, 60 per cent of Macedonian trade - including its oil supplies - moved by rail, and Petrus Stefanov, the Economy Minister, said the first priority would be to add 45 miles of track to link up with Bulgaria, then 40 miles of track to Albania. 'We shall not have total collapse, but we shall pay a high price in inflation and a lower standard of living.'

Macedonia is not friendless, and Greece's regional rivals have been quick to take advantage. Bulgaria and Turkey have offered aid and port facilities. Businessmen say it costs only half as much to send a lorry from Istanbul as it does to cross seven borders from Western Europe.

'We are not going to disappear. But the actions of Greece are pushing Macedonia into the arms of Bulgaria, Albania and Turkey,' said Saso Ordanovski, a Macedonian commentator. 'We have some support, but the Balkans are full of dangers.'

(Map omitted)