HAVING watched a brutal war in the Balkans spread from Slovenia to Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community in recent weeks has taken several steps to stop the spread of violence to tiny Macedonia - and the major Balkan war that some say would ensue.
In the past two weeks, the United Nations, the European Community, United States congressmen, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) all have pushed to help stabilize and recognize this poor and unarmed agricultural state on one of the most sensitive fault lines in the Balkans.
The most immediate help came over the weekend when a 13-member UN Protection Force team arrived here from Zagreb, Croatia, to review a plan put forth by Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov asking for UN peacekeepers to be sent to this still-unrecognized former Yugoslav republic.
Sources say the peacekeepers would number between 100 and 1,000, may be armed, and would monitor two borders - with Albania and the Serbian province of Kosovo. Deployment seems likely, a Western diplomat says, adding: "It is unprecedented to send force ahead of time. This is finally an example of the `preventive diplomacy' that always gets talked about."
For the Macedonians, help cannot come too soon. "We are right in the middle of it," says Macedonian Deputy Foreign Minister Risto Nikoski. "Macedonia set off the last two Balkan wars."
"We have so far kept the peace here," says President Gligorov, a moderate and popular man called out of retirement last spring to lead his country. "But unlike Bosnia and Croatia, which are in turmoil, we are not members of the UN, and not recognized."
Since Greece blocked the recognition of Macedonia in the European Community last December, claiming that the ancient name Macedonia is Greek and implies territorial claims on Greece, Macedonia has been in limbo.
It has daily labor strikes, has no trade, does not collect taxes, and has little oil, save that smuggled in from Bulgaria and Greece. Tensions between ethnic Albanians (constituting 30 percent of the population) and Macedonians are high and getting higher. Last spring, a week after the EC voted in Lisbon again not to recognize Macedonia, the government in Skopje folded and was replaced in August by a new government that has not met for a month, fearful that any decision might create further ethnic instab ility.
But the more immediate threat of wider war is in the adjoining Serbian province of Kosovo, currently ruled as a police state by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Western observers, including acting US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, say Mr. Milosevic could launch an ethnic-cleansing campaign against the 90 percent ethnic Albanian population there. That could cause a spillover into Macedonia and a wider war among what Macedonians have long called "the four wolves" - Serbia, Greece, Albania, a nd Bulgaria.
Efforts to "internationalize" the crisis in Macedonia by UN peacekeepers are seen as one way to provide stability. But most diplomats agree the main issue is recognition. Recognition would allow Macedonia to trade, request International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans, issue passports, and begin building the civil society that has been put on hold.
Two weeks ago a CSCE delegation led by US Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona issued a statement after visiting Macedonia: "We left Macedonia convinced that international recognition of that country would be the right thing to do and that it should be done immediately." Recognition would "discourage the expansion of the Yugoslav conflict into Macedonia." The delegation also urged President Bush to push for Macedonia's recognition in the mid-December CSCE council meeting in Stockholm.
But ultimately the issue of recognition comes down to the name. The EC is trying to arbitrate an agreement between Macedonia and Greece that could be ratified during the upcoming EC summit in Edinburgh.
Name-change proposals require higher analytic skills to comprehend. They range from "The Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" to the "Vardar Republic of Macedonia" (Vardar is the river that runs through Skopje), to "The Slavic Republic of Macedonia" (unacceptable to the non-Slav Albanians). Since the EC would have to reverse its Lisbon decision not to use the name Macedonia, two names may be combined - "The Republic of Vardarmacedonia."
Even if an EC agreement, which requires unanimity, is not worked out in Edinburgh, a number of EC nations are growing impatient with the Greek position. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a grim lesson. The Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, and Denmark are said to be ready to offer Macedonia bilateral recognition if Edinburgh fails.
Still, the most troublesome problem for the Macedonians is the yet-unknown plans of Serbian President Milosevic. "In the final analysis," says a Western observer in Skopje, "if the Serbs want to invade, they will."