IN central Athens, posters taped to light poles declare "Macedonia is Greek!," and English-language handbills in restaurants and hotels give visitors a portrait of ancient Macedonia's heroic Alexander the Great and his place in Greek history.
Farther north, in Greek Macedonia's industrial port city of Salonika, businessmen rush to work sporting gold starburst-like lapel pins that symbolize the pre-Christian Macedonian dynasty.
To the outsider, all this may seem like a fixation with ancient history. For Greeks, however, united over an issue as rarely before, it is natural self-preservation prompted by international pressure to recognize the former Yugoslavia's southernmost republic as a nation under the name "Macedonia."
From schoolboys to noted intellectuals, Greeks are adamant that the name of a historic empire they associate with their past, and which includes parts of three countries - their own, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslavia - will be bestowed upon a new nation at the expense of the region's stability.
Greece's bout of fervent nationalism might be risible if it were simply a question of a name. But what all the buttons, posters, and emotion reflect is much deeper.
With Europe's first war in nearly 50 years raging less than 250 miles away in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Greeks fear a spreading of the Yugoslav conflict and mounting instability that could spill over their borders.
"People can claim whatever name they want, but ... they can't ... go back and claim a name that has a specific history and covers a geographic area outside their borders," says Thanos Veremis, a political scientist and director of the Hellenic Foundation for Defense and Foreign Policy. "Using this name continues the irredentist claims of [former Yugoslav leader Marshal] Tito, and that is what alarms the Greek people."
The Macedonia issue also reveals a broader Greek uneasiness about their security and concerns about being marginalized.
Despite a decade of membership in the European Community (EC), Greece has never managed to feel securely European, and a war that cuts them off from their European partners aggravates Greeks' nagging fears that their country may be more Balkan than Western European.
At the same time, Turkey and Bulgaria, Greece's major historic enemies, are enjoying rising status among Western countries, including the United States. Greeks worry that Turkey especially, with its strategic importance as a neighbor of the former Soviet Union's southern republics, is gaining stature at its expense.
"Like everyone across Europe, we became used to a certain balance," says Virginia Tsouderou, Greek undersecretary for foreign affairs. "Now that balance is gone, order is being shaken, and this leaves Greeks with many questions."
Western critics say Greece is lost in a 19th-century mindset, forgetting the assurances of the NATO and EC alliances the country belongs to today. Greek observers counter that the EC has shown in Yugoslavia that it is as yet incapable of stopping spreading instability.
Many Greek leaders, including Ms. Tsouderou, say they understand international impatience with Greece over its singular stand against an independent Macedonia. But they insist that, especially given the general uncertainty over exactly how best to calm the Yugoslav fighting, Greece's position should be heeded. Concern for Balkan stability
"We are not looking out simply for Greek interests, but for the ... interest of stability in the Balkans," says Tsouderou. Among EC and NATO nations, "we are the country that loses everything if the situation disintegrates into a Lebanon."
Greeks have some grounds to worry about Macedonia - which people here refer to as "Skopje," after the self-proclaimed republic's capital. Average Greeks tell about maps circulating in Skopje showing Salonika, a Greek port Tito coveted for access to the Aegean Sea, as part of their country, or about "Skopjean" politicians who speak of "liberating" all Macedonians.
Perhaps most threatening in Greek eyes, however, is the new republic's volatile mix of ethnic groups and nationalities, some of whom refuse the Macedonian label. Albanians, for example, who make up about one-third of the population, often consider the Macedonian name an attempt to deny their existence. "What we fear is a civil war where the Slavs, mostly of Bulgarian origin, might try to crush the minorities," says Dimitri Germidis, a high-ranking Greek diplomat and himself from Greek Macedonia. "Albania
would quickly enter the fighting, so would Bulgaria, and where would that leave Greece?"
All this uncertainty, plus the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where international recognition did nothing to stop Serbian aggression, has shifted Western response to Greece's stubbornness on Macedonia from irritation to a willingness to listen.
"There is general agreement in Western capitals now that Greece has to be heard on this," says one Western diplomat in Athens. "There are still differences of opinion over the best way of assuring that the instability doesn't spill south, and no clear judgment as to whether recognition has been right in the past." Meetings with Serbian leader
Western capitals have expressed irritation over Greek attempts to maintain a traditional friendship with Serbia and by a visit to Belgrade this year by Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis. But the Greeks, who insist they are fully enforcing the UN embargo against Serbia, say chances for peace will not be served by isolating Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Mr. Mitsotakis is also known to have rebuffed Mr. Milosevic and apprised EC colleagues when Milosevic proposed to him that Serbia and Greece share a partitioned Macedonia.
The issue of the Macedonian republic's name will be taken up at this weekend's EC summit in Lisbon, but Western officials hold out little hope for a solution.
One suggested compromise is "Republic of New Macedonia of Skopje," although some observers believe any use of the word "Macedonia" threatens Mitsotakis's government. Another proposal is for "Macedonia" to be used inside the country during a transition period, with a different name for international use.
Despite their stubbornness on this issue, Greek leaders insist they want a solution soon so that Greece, as the troubled Balkan region's strongest democracy, can enhance its position as a channel for democratic principles and economic development.
Western leaders agree there is an important role for Greece to play, but only after it sorts out its differences with its neighbors.
"Until the Macedonia question is settled, it will be difficult for Greece to play that role at all," says one Western diplomat.