THE Balkans are being pushed towards greater conflict. The key questions today: Is such conflict avoidable? Or is it a necessary prelude to resolving Serbian expansionism?Germany's tough stance in recognizing the breakaway Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia last week forced the European Community to a compromise: EC members agreed to recognize on Jan. 15 republics that request autonomy and meet basic criteria. Much ink flowed on the new role this sets for Germany in Europe; Monday Bonn formally recognized Slovenia and Croatia. Much less ink, however, has been given to what this move may actually do in Yugoslavia. The immediate effect has been to force, perhaps prematurely, those Yugoslav republics that want independence to begin formally breaking away. On paper this sounds splendid. But in the current brutal and paranoid atmosphere in the Balkans, the reality may be different. More blood than ink could flow. Bosnia-Herzegovenia has asked for recognition. That is, the majority Muslims and Croats in Bosnia (65 percent) asked. The heavily armed local Serbs (25 percent) say they will secede into five ungainly regions, giving Bosnia a Swiss cheese appearance - and a probability of furious ethnic strife. Macedonia wants recognition. So does the 90 percent Albanian majority in Kosovo, the mystic heartland of Serbia. Serbians will fight this to the end. The Serb region of Krajina in Croatia announced it will secede and instituted a curfew. Things are getting messy. Even EC members are balking and beginning to stress, as Italy's foreign minister Gianni de Michelis has, the range of criteria republics must meet to be recognized. This means not only human rights, but also stable borders - something that may allow EC members to recognize only sleepy Alpine Slovenia. Recognition won't remove the Yugoslav Army from the third of Croatia it occupies. It won't resolve the troublesome issue of where to draw Croatia's borders. Who "liberates" Vukovar now? Recognition sets up expectations. How far can Europe go to bolster the Balkans? Patience and sanctions should ensure that the Balkans don't implode - or become Europe's little Vietnam.