A PHALANX of headlights stabbed the moonless night as a dozen trucks jolted from their rendezvous point on a dirt track and headed for Macedonia's border with Serbia.
The vehicles, bearing license plates from Serbia, Macedonia, and the self-declared Bosnian Serb state, were led by a Macedonian police jeep and directed by a Macedonian police officer onto a road that wound through hilly farmlands shrouded in darkness.
Ten miles down the road, six more trucks waited at a remote border post for Macedonian police to raise the barrier and allow them to cross into Serbia. Inside their hut, Macedonian officers shared glasses of vodka with a Serbian policeman who had come to ensure the vehicles' passage.
"On average, 100 trucks go in each direction every night," says a Scandinavian soldier posted since February at a nearby United Nations observation post. "When it started, we wrote down every license plate. But we don't bother now. We just count them," he chuckles. "Sometimes, they are allowed through at 10 p.m., sometimes at 4 a.m."
The crossing is supposed to be closed from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and is officially banned to trucks. But it is one of numerous avenues for massive, systematic violations in Macedonia of the UN trade and oil embargoes slapped in May 1990 on Serbia and Montenegro for their roles in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Macedonia has only two road and rail crossings into Serbia that are approved by the UN, and only humanitarian shipments are legal. Western diplomats estimate as many as 3,000 trucks from both sides cross the border.
When the sanctions were tightened in April, Romania and Bulgaria began cooperating in controlling their previously porous borders. So the multimillion dollar bonanza of contraband that originates mostly in Greece shifted to Macedonia, which lies directly between the two. Creating a new class
As a result, Serbia still brims with sanctioned goods, including huge quantities of gasoline, from a trade that has created a new class of wealthy criminals and corrupt officials while a majority of people suffer unprecedented economic hardship, diplomats say.
"We have very credible evidence of large quantities going through Macedonia," one diplomat says. "There have been very credible reports of petrol going into Serbia by train at night."
The participation in sanctions-busting by Macedonian police, as witnessed by this reporter, refutes denials by officials, including President Kiro Gligorov, who insist the former Yugoslav republic rigorously enforces the blockade.
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is charged with monitoring enforcement, but its small force of 30 border observers has no power to halt sanctions-breakers. They can only alert Macedonian customs officials. One CSCE monitor, who asked not to be named, says Macedonian customs officers stop vehicles only while CSCE agents are present. When the monitors depart, the border is opened.
The breaches are "an open secret," a political analyst explains. He voices the widely held belief - denied by the government - that senior officials are reaping fortunes by colluding in the violations. A diplomat agrees: "There has to be complicity by government officials at some level."
Western governments, including the United States, have long known about the extent of the violations from the records kept by UN peacekeepers and CSCE monitors. But they have failed to take any steps to ensure that Macedonia enforces the sanctions, sources say.
Perhaps insufficient implementation of the UN sanctions has left Macedonia with little choice but to cooperate in breaking the embargos. The tiny, landlocked state was the poorest of the six former Yugoslav republics, and about 60 percent of its economy depended on trade with Serbia, through which pass all of its international road and rail links and communications. The government says losses already total $1.7 billion - more than half the gross national product of $3 billion. Compensation for damages
The UN sanctions resolutions call for compensation for damages for Serbia's neighbors. But Macedonia has received nothing, thereby providing no incentive to the government to enforce the measures, particularly when the survival of many of its own state enterprises is at stake.
"There is no question that the sanctions present the Macedonian government with some of its toughest problems," a diplomat says.
Mr. Gligorov, in a Monitor interview, pointed out that his government recently approved measures to strengthen enforcement, including fines for sanctions-busters. But diplomats say the amounts were far too small to discourage those standing to gain massive profits.
Gligorov also asserted that "90 percent of the problem could be resolved" if firmer steps were taken to ensure that Greece stopped allowing shipments of contraband intended for Serbia through Thessiloniki.
"Greece refuses to accept monitors on its border," Gligorov complains. Experts agree the US and the European Community, of which Greece is a member, have failed to bring sufficient pressure on Athens to accept monitors.
If Macedonia unilaterally closed its borders with Greece and Serbia to contraband, they add, Athens could well retaliate by blocking goods bound for Macedonia, whose only access to the sea is through Thessiloniki.