`CAN the war spread?"
That apprehensive question by a correspondent from Sofia, Bulgaria referred to the tragic conflict over the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yugoslav Army and Serbian troops continue to press their year-long land grab for a "greater Serbia" in the republic.
The "spread" - if it comes - would certainly involve newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as the now-independent state of Macedonia. Neighboring Bulgaria could scarcely be indifferent.
Macedonia has become again the potential flash point it so often was in a century of conflict among the Balkan nations of southeastern Europe. Macedonians and Bulgarians both fear that - once the Bosnian war is concluded to Serbia's satisfaction - the latter's eyes, under present leadership, will turn to Macedonia. If that comes about, there can be no doubt Bulgaria would be affected and the Balkans as a whole reduced to a conflict as tangled as the Balkan wars of 80 years ago.
There are good grounds for Macedonian misgivings so far. Having spurned the suggestion by Serbia's communist-nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic that it join a smaller "rump" Yugoslavia dominated by Serbs, Macedonia declared independence last November. It then sought the same international recognition secessionist Slovenia and Croatia gained last year.
Acceptance by the European Community seemed likely until Greece vetoed the move in January with a demand that EC recognition be conditional on Macedonia changing its name. The name implies a territorial claim, Athens says, since it belongs historically to Greece and today still belongs to its northern-most province.
But to non-Greeks as well as Macedonians, the idea is laughable that Macedonia - the poorest of old Yugoslavia's republics - might entertain territorial ambitions toward a well-armed NATO country. For Greeks, however, the name Macedonia goes back to the 4th century B.C. empire of Alexander the Great. Macedonia is as emotive a word for them as is Kosovo to the Serbs, whose outdated claim extends to that province because it was the scene of Serbia's "last stand" against the Turks 600 years ago.
Yet Greece's stand has exerted pressure on other EC members to deny recognition except on terms dictated by Athens. And President Milosevic recently made an unannounced visit to Athens. Reportedly he returned to Belgrade after lengthy talks with Greek officials without even a minor courtesy stop to visit his Macedonian counterparts. It is, therefore, not surprising that suspicions should arise that Serbia and Greece have common views about Macedonia, and that the latter should feel highly apprehensive.
It is symptomatic of the general unease that Bulgaria, ignoring Greek pressure, gave diplomatic recognition to Macedonia. To do so was extraordinary since Sofia, like Athens, has always denied the existence of a Macedonian nation and culture.
Serbia, already internationally isolated, is now making matters worse by forcibly seizing Bosnian territory, as it did earlier in Croatia. Still more serious, however, the land grab is threatening Balkan peace and stability more broadly and adding impetus to the open nationalism already clouding democratic processes.
History shows how easily a Balkan crisis can become a European one. For now, the Serbs' anti-Albanian behavior in Kosovo is in the background. But an intervention in Macedonia - which is 67 percent Macedonian and 20 percent Albanian and only 2 percent Serb - will not only fuel Kosovo's claims to independence, but will also swell an already growing demand for union with Albania.
Albania, even poorer than Macedonia or Kosovo, is not looking to add to its economic problems. Still, the leader of the victorious Albanian democrats, Sali Berisha, used the same language in his presidential inauguration address as his communist predecessor to affirm concern for "all Albanians everywhere."