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Macedonia Staves Off Conflict

The only multiethnic republic to emerge peacefully from Yugoslavia is still waiting for international recognition. But the wait is costly. BALKAN CONFLICT

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1993


THE minaret spires and Orthodox domes that cohabit Skopje's skyline are fogged-in almost every other day - which seems a perfect metaphor for this impoverished and still unrecognized former Yugoslav republic. To the 2.5 million Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Vlachs, and gypsies that make-up Macedonia, both daily life and the future seem murky.

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Macedonia is the only multiethnic republic to emerge peacefully from Yugoslavia. But how stable it will remain is as cloudy as the local skies. If Kosovo is the fuse for a larger Balkan war, say diplomats, violence in Macedonia is the dynamite that could throw it into Greece, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Unlike hairtrigger tensions between Albanians and Serbs in neighboring Kosovo, the atmosphere here is not incendiary. "It isn't that Macedonia will suddenly explode," one Western diplomat says, "it's more likely to implode" from external pressures.

Several factors could cause such an implosion: lack of recognition, loans, and trade. Macedonia's economy is subsistence: Gas, only available on the black market, is $5 a gallon; the average salary has plummeted from $200 to $60 a month; a recent European study shows a $2 billion loss in exports and trade in 1992. In the country, boys bicycle in front of their parent's fields with gas cans swinging from the handlebars, hoping truck drivers will sell them a few drops to fuel the farm's tractor.

Political tensions between Albanians and ethnic Macedonians are high, though the anger that led to riots in Skopje between Albanians and police this fall has eased.

The biggest worry is the recent reelection of nationalist Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and a "Greater Serbia" government in Belgrade. Serb rioters clashed with police New Year's Eve when the police tried to take down Milosevic posters.

Many Macedonians think war will erupt in Kosovo in just a matter of time.

"The election threw a chill over everything," says Dimitar Mircev, Macedonia's ambassador-designate to Slovenia.

If Serbs begin an "ethnic cleansing" attack on Albanians in Kosovo, says Jeminic Idrizi, president of a small Albanian party in Skopje, "Albanians here will not sit with our arms crossed."

"Outwardly, things look calm. But underneath, we are close to the edge," a popular Albanian journalist says. "Albanians in Macedonia must get their rights before we can have stability."

The more typical view, expressed by Albanians and Macedonians alike, is that of a young businessman at Delmetfu's, a popular Skopje restaurant: "Nothing is going to happen here because it is too dangerous for anything to happen, and everyone knows it." Hopes for recognition

Still, in recent weeks a quiet hope is building here based on a belief that the world is beginning to support Macedonian recognition - despite a strong Greek lobby that has argued the name "Macedonia" implies long-term territorial ambitions.

There is evidence to support Macedonia's hope. The United Nations Security Council begins considering Macedonia's application for UN membership this week. (Greek Foreign Minister Michalis Papaconstantinou said last week that countries voting against Greece can expect relations to "deteriorate.") Also, while the European Community in its December summit upheld Greek desires not to recognize Macedonia unless it changed its name, some EC member states may break rank. Two weeks ago the Dutch and Italian parl iaments voted for their governments to recognize Macedonia; the German Bundestag is expected to look at a similar resolution.

Moreover, last Tuesday, as a preventive measure, the first of 800 UN peacekeepers arrived. Stationed on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, their purpose is twofold: to stop waves of Albanians from flooding Macedonia and creating instability if violence occurs in Kosovo, and to make Serbs think twice about pursuing the Albanians across the border. "The troops provide an enormous psychological boost," says Risto Nikovski, Macedonia's deputy foreign minister.