Stand Up for Macedonia

Many have remarked on the Clinton administration's curious propensity for treating foreign-policy issues as though they were somehow in competition with more important domestic concerns.

With Macedonia, the administration has taken this fallacy a step further. By bowing to Greek-American pressures to obstruct United States relations with Macedonia, it is handling a foreign-policy issue as though it were a domestic issue. This is undermining Macedonia's stability, which is critical to preventing the Balkan conflict from spreading.

At the heart of the matter are Greek objections to Macedonia's name, flag, and other symbols. Athens claims these are Greek and that Macedonia's use of them indicates designs on Greek territory. Macedonia claims it has been known as Macedonia - and its people as Macedonians - for generations (without Greek objection) and that it only wants to exist peacefully within current borders.

In an effort to pressure Macedonia, Greece has broadened the dispute by linking Macedonia's surrender on these issues to international assistance and membership in the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also, successive governments in Athens have imposed trade embargoes on Macedonia. In an unprecedented effort to end the embargo, European Union nations are taking Athens to the European Court of Justice.

Athens' maneuvers could not have come at a worse time. Various threats are squeezing Skopje to the breaking point.

From the outset, Macedonia has been plagued by a failed, centralized economy. Internally, ethnic tensions are high.

External threats are even worse. To Macedonia's north, United Nations sanctions have eliminated Serb markets, previously its largest trade outlet. To the east and west, transport and communications routes are undeveloped.

To the south, Greece's economic strangulation has slowed Macedonia's privatization and political reform. As Macedonia has repeatedly warned, its economy cannot survive the winter under the embargo, now in its sixth month.

Skopje's appeals are opposed by the Greek-American political and congressional lobby, which demands that the White House tolerate the intolerable. Yet the US has strong interests in promoting Balkan stability, encouraging the growth of democracy and free-market economies, and discouraging nationalism. So does Greece. But Athens's policies do the opposite.

By advancing these American interests rather than those of a domestic lobby, the US could set Macedonia on the road to recovery. To do so, it must change course.

* First, the administration should insist that Greece end its embargo. US demands should be backed with penalties against Athens and rewards for Skopje.

* Second, the administration should send an ambassador to Skopje. In March, having decided to recognize Macedonia and establish full diplomatic relations, the White House recanted on the latter action after Greek-Americans interceded. The result was a dangerous anomaly: In a country where we have stationed 600 US troops, we have no policy presence. Beyond their avowed discouragement of spillover of conflict from the north, these troops have helped to stabilize Macedonia internally. To fail to complement this contingent - when we have drawn a military line in the sand - with a credible diplomatic presence is not merely inconsistent. It is incoherent.

* Third, again by disincentives and incentives, President Clinton should lead Macedonia, and especially Greece - the more obstructionist and uncompromising party in two years of talks - to accept a package of compromises on the name and all other disputed issues.

SO far, rather than leading, the administration has repeatedly stated support for resolution through UN talks. The president's ``consistency,'' however, is not a virtue, but neglect and abnegation of our responsibility. The US is the only nation able to transcend Europe's competing interests and resolve dangerous rifts. In the Balkan tinderbox, neglect, regardless of intent, makes things worse.

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