WHILE the West struggles to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia, a potentially more dangerous crisis looms in Macedonia where a Serb offensive could trigger an all-out Balkan war pitting Serbia and Greece against Bulgaria, Albania, and Turkey.
If this were to occur, other nations might be drawn in, spinning the situation hopelessly out of control and creating a 1914 scenario that could lead to war on a continental scale. There is time to prevent such a catastrophe, but only if the United States acts now by erecting a military and diplomatic "fire wall" in Macedonia.
After a recent trip to Macedonia which included discussions with Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, his parliamentary president, Stojan Andov, and key government leaders and intellectuals, it is clear that such a fire wall has become an "idea-in-good-currency" among knowledgeable Macedonians inside and outside government.
Here are several possible elements of such a fire wall:
* US recognition of Macedonia. Macedonia was recently recognized by the United Nations. US recognition of Macedonia might discourage Serb aggression and keep Macedonia's moderate democratic reformists in power - especially President Gligorov, who is respected widely in the region, even in Belgrade and Athens.
* Enlargement of the 800-man UN contingent currently in western Macedonia. At its present size, this force has little deterrence value.
* US occupation of a recently vacated Macedonian military base outside Skopje, the capital, for use as a surveillance and communications intelligence center to monitor Serb activity in nearby Kosovo and environs. This occupation should be done only with prior Macedonian approval and with the full understanding that it will in no way lead to a de facto US occupation of Macedonia.
Such a move would also give the US a subtle but effective presence in the region that would prevent the Serbs from using the base themselves - and discourage them from capturing nearby territory. Unless the US acts now to erect a fire wall between Serbia and Macedonia, hostilities could spread and engulf the Balkans.
Macedonia's problems are severe. They are exacerbated by the failure of the US to extend diplomatic recognition. Greece objects to such recognition, calling an independent Macedonia a threat to its cultural identity and political position. Despite its objections, the European Parliament finally voted in 1993 to extend recognition, as did Russia, Bulgaria, and Turkey the previous year.
Macedonia has been admitted to the UN under the label, "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia;" Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Denmark have also formally recognized the country. The US, however, in the name of NATO solidarity with Greece, still refuses to recognize Macedonia.
The failure of the Skopje government to win diplomatic recognition from the US has strengthened Macedonian nationalists in the parliament. These nationalist groups oppose any hint of inter-ethnic accommodation and are committed to the extension of Macedonia's borders into Greece as far south as Salonika and the Aegean Sea.
Coupled with the continued deterioration of the Macedonian economy resulting from the embargo of Serbia, which previously accounted for more than 50 percent of Macedonia's total trade, the Skopje government faces a severe test in upcoming parliamentary elections and needs all the support it can muster to continue its moderate, liberal-reformist course. If it is destabilized, the resulting coalition could exacerbate historically strained relations between Slavic and Albanian Macedonians and radically alte r the direction of Macedonian domestic and foreign policies.
Lack of recognition also makes Macedonia's borders with Serbia, including the Kosovo, more vulnerable to Serbian aggression. Many believe that an outbreak of hostilities in Kosovo would provide a pretext for Serb attacks into Macedonian territory, notwithstanding some 800 UNPROFOR troops along the Macedonian border with Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania. Equally likely are Serb efforts to drive Kosovan Albanians across the mountainous border into western Macedonia, where there are heavy concentrations of Maced onian Albanians.
The leaders of three major Serb parties are committed to the preservation of Kosovo as historic Serb territory and of the pre-1945 claim that Macedonia is actually southern Serbia. A "Greater Serbia" would include all territory up to the present Greek border. Serb agents are now active in western Macedonia, provoking Albanian opposition to the present liberal-reform government in Skopje.
Barring US action, many in Macedonia believe a Balkan war will originate in the mountains of western Macedonia and spread.
This paralysis can be decisively altered by the US, if the Clinton-Gore administration chooses to exert leadership in maintaining peace and security in Macedonia and the Balkans by erecting a fire wall against aggression. Among North Atlantic powers, the US alone is free to seize the opportunity for preventative diplomacy in Macedonia, which is the only country where such action is feasible.
The unstated US policy option is to withhold recognition of Macedonia and to do nothing else. This option ignores the unequivocal strategic importance of Macedonia and the opportunity for preventative diplomacy now to avoid military entanglements later.
Using the base near Skopje for surveillance and for a symbolic US presence to deter the Serbs, together with augmentation of UNPROFOR forces and recognition of Macedonia, would help the moderate, liberal reformist government in upcoming parliamentary elections and contribute to regional economic, political and military stability. The costs of such a fire wall initiative are modest, provided the US acts before it is too late.