Brave in the Balkan Heartland

With Serbia to the north and a hostile Greece to the south, Macedonians revel in independence

INDEPENDENCE for this beautiful but poor landlocked state in the heart of the Balkans was a bold step.

Since September 1991, when it broke from Yugoslavia, Macedonia has lived with the threat that Serbia, to the north, could send in the Yugoslav Army and force it into Belgrade's federation with Montenegro.

To the south, Macedonia faces Greece, a highly hostile neighbor and Serbia's friend.

From within, Macedonia must contend with an Albanian minority, 2 million people who have emotional ties with compatriots in adjacent Kosovo - Serbia's southern province that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. The Albanians have five ministers in Macedonia's coalition government but demand an even more autonomous voice. If the Serbs oppressed Kosovo, dialogue between the goverment in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, and its Albanian minority could be strained.

But for now, these threats have lessened. Macedonia received recognition from the European Community in April, which led to other improvements in the republic's international standing, President Kiro Gligorov pointed out in a recent interview. The EC move was followed by:

* United Nations recognition, which qualified Skopje for international financial aid.

* The arrival of 300 United States troops, which has strengthened the UN border watch serving as a deterrent to Serbian aggression.

Furthermore, Serbia's deepening economic crisis, resulting from UN sanctions, could help keep Belgrade out of Macedonia. Meeting Mr. Gligorov May 31, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic admitted that sanctions were hurting. He acknowledged Macedonia as a separate state (evading recognition) and talked of cooperation.

Macedonians have a passionate sense of their rich, ancient culture. A few years ago most would have scorned foreign troops of any nationality being here. But the Americans' arrival - which officials here regard as a rare case of the UN and the US acting before something happens - was welcomed.

Macedonia's quarrel with Greece over its name also has been shelved. "The UN recognized us as 'the former Yugoslav republic,' " Gligorov said, "but that's only for UN. To us, it is just Macedonia."

In the Fontana restaurant in the old Bazaar of Skopje, which is flourishing under privatization, an articulate young waiter sums up Macedonian sentiment. "We know our name," he says. "And [regarding the US troops], does it matter where they're from if they help guard peace? We are a poor, small country. We need time and friends."

Gligorov says: "We have many common interests with Greece, far beyond war in Bosnia and Balkan disputes. We both are democratic states, and fights over names are emotional."

Greece's two-month blockade cost Macedonia $1.4 billion in vital supplies. Trade losses from UN sanctions on Serbia are put at nearly $3 billion. But with aid from the World Bank and other financial institutions now a possibility, Gligorov would like to promote Balkan cooperation with a few projects. These include a highway from Durres on Albania's Adriatic coast to Istanbul through Macedonia and Bulgaria, and a railroad from Skopje to Sofia, Bulgaria.

But the investors necessary for such projects - despite Macedonia's imaginative free market reforms - will remain chary amid the current Balkan destabilization.

Gligorov has no illusions. An immediate threat from Serbia may only be postponed. After his meeting with Mr. Milosevic, he said: "We shall still watch him warily. He has changed positions so many times, [but not] his fundamental goal." Macedonians think this is an axiom to be kept in mind in Geneva.

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