``The Balkans for the Balkan peoples.'' This was the rallying cry for revolutionaries all over the area from the 19th century until World War I, up in arms against foreign ``patrons'' and oppressive indigenous governments.
The cry failed - as much because of the mutual distrusts between the states and their various ethnic groups as because of big-power interference.
Today, somewhat similar Balkan concerns seem to be stirring in the nuclear age. But, however much the governments may agree about the nuclear menace, progress seems fated to be dogged by the same territorial and ethnic arguments that thwarted the early dream.
Some of those old issues look more intractable than ever. The region, like Europe as a whole, is divided by ideological East-West tensions. Mostly its governments must lean, as in the past, on the good will or active support of outside, bigger powers.
That is the background for initiatives urging denuclearization of the Balkans - initiatives first undertaken by Romania and Bulgaria, both members of the Warsaw Pact, and later by an ambivalent NATO government in Greece. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has since given the idea his blessing. That, however, was enough to prompt varying degrees of skepticism among putative adherents.
When foreign ministers of six Balkan states meet in Belgrade this month to talk about cooperation on creating a nuclear-free and chemical weapons-free Balkans and about trade and regional economic interests and communications, local bilateral conflicts will create the really big obstacles.
There is an immediate snag to reaching agreement on a chemical-weapons pact. Only Greece and Turkey, both a part of the Americans' missile network around the Soviet Union, would be affected.
On the nuclear issue, Bulgaria might once have been called upon to accept Soviet countermissiles. But the Soviet-American Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and Mr. Gorbachev's consequent undertaking to remove such missiles from Czechoslovakia and East Germany have, for the foreseeable future, taken that possibility off the agenda.
But viewed from Albania, the issue seems simplistic indeed. It is pointless, the Albanians say, to talk of a nuclear-free Balkans while Balkan states are allied to one superpower or the other - two in NATO and two in the Warsaw Pact. Albania and Yugoslavia are nonaligned, though the Albanians say that Yugoslavia cannot claim genuine nonalignment while it has links with both superpowers, even if it belongs to neither alliance. Only Albania, they assert, is ``truly independent'' of bloc ties and pressures of any kind.
The superpower INF agreement was described here to this correspondent as ``a big noise.'' Its 3 percent reduction of the superpower's nuclear arsenal was dismissed as irrelevant. ``The world is not all that much more secure,'' says an Albanian official who specializes in foreign affairs. ``While the US and the USSR retain their nuclear monopoly, we are for true disarmament, not a process manipulated exclusively by the two superpowers.''
That means, the official says, the dismantlement of all foreign bases and missile sites and the removal of all foreign troops from Europe, the Balkans included.
In Athens, Andreas Papandreou's government may sympathize with such ideas for its own political reasons. Turkey, though, will have none of it. Romania may offer lip service. But in practice neither Romania nor Bulgaria, even without Soviet bases on their own soil, could afford to support unilateral reduction of their own alliance. Nor would Yugoslavia, for that matter, relish any weakening of the NATO shield on its exposed eastern flank.
If a nuclear-free accord is a nonstarter, what are the prospects of agreement in Belgrade on other avenues of cooperation?
The Yugoslavs, as conference conveners, seem to have contrived an anodyne agenda that virtually excludes real debate on the various Balkan minority issues - in which Yugoslavia is, of course, more involved than any.
Sofia and Ankara have long been at odds over Bulgaria's endeavor to ``denationalize'' its Turkish community. But Belgrade's quarrels with Albania over Kosovo, Yugoslavia's Albanian-populated province, and with Bulgaria and, to a lesser extent with Greece, over Macedonia, go deeper.
Albania itself, with a 96 percent ethnic Albanian population, has no such problems. For the first time, they are taking part in a multilateral Balkan get-together, which is evidence of the increasingly outward look here on foreign relations. They see their new close rapport with Greece as a model for the region, and seem genuinely concerned to find a modus vivendi with Yugoslavia.
But ``everything,'' they say, must be discussed, including those acrimonious minority disputes.
It will be quite a step, and not only for the Albanians, if the coming conference can manage that and still get down to meaningful talks about regional trade and cooperation in place of old and often bloody disharmony.