SMALL, multiethnic Macedonia - situated in the midst of roiling Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia - is a tripwire in an explosive region. The Clinton administration should learn from three years of war in South Europe and establish diplomatic relations with Macedonia, now.
Last week the moderate Gligorov government announced elections for Oct. 16. The United States has recognized Macedonia but hasn't formalized any relations. Setting up an embassy would show support for the democratic gains President Kiro Gligorov has made under difficult conditions. It may head off nationalist hotheads.
Relations between ethnic Albanians and nationalists in the former Yugoslav republic are tense. Macedonia shares a border with Serbia's Kosovo Province, where the 95 percent Albanian population is repressed by Serb police. President Clinton rightly sent peacekeepers to that border last year.
A silly but dangerous dispute between Greece and Macedonia remains a problem. Greece stakes a claim on the name Macedonia, says Macedonia's Constitution is expansionist, and has enforced a withering embargo on the impoverished nation for seven months now. Escalating anger between Albania and Greece in recent weeks - Greece closed the border with Albania and threw out 60,000 Albanian workers - makes matters worse.
If Macedonia collapses, the region could ignite. NATO members Greece and Turkey would be on opposite sides; Turkey has a military alliance with Albania. Given the stakes, one asks why the US did not long ago open an embassy in the capital, Skopje.
The reason is that two administrations have caved to the highly mobilized domestic US-Greek community.
In 1992 the US was ready to recognize Macedonia with Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. The country had the highest minority-rights rating of the four. But Athens asked the Bush administration to wait three months so then-Prime Minister Mitsotakis could ``prepare'' his people. Prepare them he did - with fantastic propaganda. Last March, Mr. Clinton nearly opened an embassy but stopped after visits by Greek members of Congress.
The White House cannot allow an ethnic lobby, no matter how well respected, to veto American foreign policy, especially when America's basic values are on the line. A stable Macedonia will actually be better for Greece in the long-run. Greek Prime Minister Papandreou might offer his people this brand of preparation.
The US has 600 troops in a country with which it has no relations. If Macedonia is important enough to send troops to, the US should have full relations with it. Send an ambassador. Soon.