A conflagration by any name: Disagreement over what to call an independent state of Macedonia could turn into a calamitous war, says Tony Barber

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HORRIFIC though the civil wars are in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a conflict is looming in the Balkans that would be far more dangerous in its implications. For in contrast to the current fighting, which has been contained within the borders of the former Yugoslavia, this conflict could easily suck in foreign powers - Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Turkey - as well as the Serbian-Montenegrin state proclaimed in April.

If such a war breaks out, the battleground will be Macedonia. At issue, on the surface, is what to call the tiny republic of two million people. But beneath that seemingly trivial dispute lies a cocktail of ethnic and territorial rivalries that threatens not only to touch off a war but to cause another calamitous Balkan refugee crisis and to sow the seeds of decades of instability and paranoia.

Macedonia has rarely known peace since it formed the heart of Alexander the Great's empire 2,300 years ago. After five centuries of Turkish rule, it was divided in 1913 between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. In 1945, Tito turned the Serbian section into the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, but the rest remained in northern Greece and western Bulgaria.

Greece and Bulgaria were enraged by Tito's recognition of the people of Yugoslav Macedonia as a distinct Macedonian nationality, for it implied that Macedonian minorities lived on their soil. Both governments feared this would one day lead to territorial claims against them. Hence both countries have always refused to accept that a genuine Macedonian nation exists.

Bulgaria, in fact, briefly controlled most of Macedonia in 1878 and has tried and failed three times in this century to win it back in war. Though the present government denies expansionist ambitions, many Bulgarian nationalists still lay claim to the land.

The difficulty is that the Slavic inhabitants of Yugoslav Macedonia do have a strong sense of national identity, admittedly acquired largely after 1945. It was not surprising that, after Communist rule ended in Yugoslavia in 1990, Macedonia emulated the other five republics in declaring its independence and seeking international recognition.

This immediately gave rise to tensions. A European Community commission recommended in January that Macedonia should receive recognition, and the United States seemed to support that line, but the move was blocked by Greece. No recognition, the Greeks said, unless Macedonia changed its name - perhaps to 'the Republic of Skopje'.

The Greeks insisted that Macedonia was an ancient Greek term to which they had the exclusive right, and said its use by another state implied a claim on the northern Greek province of Macedonia. They also suspected an independent Macedonia might exert influence over the Slavic minority in Greece, although it now numbers less than 50,000.

At first, the Greek stance annoyed the other 11 EC states. They failed to see why Greece, a Nato member with 10 million people, should feel threatened by a poor country with no army. Things became more serious when Greece joined Serbia in a blockade of Macedonia that caused havoc to its economy. Then last month the EC and the US bowed to Greek pressure and said they, too, would not recognise Macedonia under that name.

The switch in policy provoked an upheaval in Macedonian politics. Last Tuesday, the government of the Prime Minister, Nikola Kljusev, fell when parliamentarians, outraged that their country should be told to adopt a new name, passed a vote of no confidence. President Kiro Gligorov, although a moderate, has felt compelled to ask a Macedonian nationalist to form the next government.

He is Ljupco Georgievski, leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Party-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity. The party takes its name from the main Macedonian revolutionary organisation of the 1890s and 1900s. Among its stated goals is the creation of 'a spiritual, economic and ethnic union of the divided Macedonian people' - that is, a Macedonia incorporating parts of Greece and Bulgaria.

At the same time, the Greek and Serbian squeeze on Macedonia has left it vulnerable to the Albanians, who make up at least 20 per cent of its population. They voted for autonomy in January despite official warnings that their referendum was invalid. Some Albanians even want to create a Greater Albanian state by joining up the western part of Macedonia with Albania and the mainly Albanian-populated province of Kosovo in Serbia. That is a casus belli for Serbia.

In fact, the Serbs recently proposed to Greece that they carve up Macedonia together. Though the Greeks rejected the idea, it helped to line up Bulgaria against its traditional enemy Serbia, and Turkey against its traditional enemy Greece. The makings of a disastrous Balkan imbroglio are already in place.