Lowdown on a high-strung corner of Europe

In the Balkans, armed conflict spreads fast - from places unexpected, over soaring mountains, across ethnic divides, and into the conscience of Western leaders.

Take the current crises.

It was the winter of 1997 when Albania imploded with the collapse of a group of pyramid bank schemes, sending thousands of scorned investors to the streets. The government fell, then the police, and rioters soon had seized some 100,000 weapons from military stocks - many of them AK-47 machine guns, the Balkan favorite.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Serbia, the archenemy of Albania, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had problems of his own. Demonstrations over election fraud were reaching the danger level, and there was talk of a revolution. Hardly anyone in Serbia noticed the crisis in Albania, which seemed far away and had more to do with corruption than anything else.

But that was not the case. As Mr. Milosevic regained control in Belgrade, and Albania returned to its usual state of mild chaos, the stolen guns began seeping over the mountains, through the porous border on donkey carts, and into the southern Serbian province of Kosovo.

In Kosovo, ethnic Albanian guerrillas known as the Kosovo Liberation Army were already preparing to fight for independence. With weapons, the war was on.

Meanwhile, Macedonia, sandwiched in the middle and without a real army, looked on nervously, worried that its own restive ethnic Albanian population would be the next to call for independence.

As Kosovo exploded - villages razed, civilians massacred - the difficult questions it raised reached Bosnia, which was still recovering from a war of its own. Should the Muslims there support the Muslims in Kosovo? Would the Serbs be inspired to take up arms again and fight for the last piece of contested territory in Bosnia, a town called Brcko that held great strategic importance for all sides?

And what about Greece? Would it side with its Christian Orthodox cousins, the Serbs, and risk a greater conflict with its longtime enemy, Turkey, a fellow NATO member that would surely back the Muslim ethnic Albanians?

More than any other region in Europe this century, the Balkans have been a constant source of instability. They are poor states, rife with nationalism and volatile ethnic mixes, the crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity, war and peace.

Most of the Balkans broke from 500 years of Turkish Ottoman rule in the beginning of this century, only to dive headfirst into World War I and become killing grounds in World War II. In 1980, Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito died, as did the dream of "brotherhood and unity." In 1989, Milosevic revoked the autonomy of Kosovo, which sparked the breakup of Yugoslavia into four other countries: Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia.

For the United States, the Balkans were a distant land where peace could be won, but where the costs were open-ended and risks of failure high. The US did broker a settlement for Bosnia in 1995, but success is still unsure and the deal requires the heavy hand of foreign troops and foreign control.

Yet, while Balkan problems date back centuries, the crises of today are distinctly new.

At issue is the growing divide between Western-style democracy and isolationist authoritarian rule.

Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro are struggling to become a part of Europe, to open their economies, ensure human rights, and learn to govern for the people and by the people.

On the other hand, Albania, Croatia, and the dominant Yugoslav republic of Serbia remain fixated on the past, their leaders more concerned with political survival than anything else. For them, power and conflict go hand in hand, and dreams of a "greater" state never die.

Ethnic hatred rings through many of the crises. All the countries are susceptible to conflict because so many borders are disputed and populated with ethnic minorities. Also, there are no strong military alliances in the region.

Perhaps no two countries harbor more resentment against each other than Yugoslavia and Croatia. But there's one thing they agree on: Both would love to take half of Bosnia, an international protectorate still struggling to find its place in the region. There, US-backed reformists are struggling to wrest power from hard-liners.

The outlook for the future of the Balkans is bleak. The US-led international community is failing to get ethnic Albanians and Serbs to agree on a peace plan for Kosovo. Bosnia is appearing more vulnerable, and the United Nations is afraid to remove its peacekeeping troops. Croatian president Franjo Tudjman is ill, and the death of his highly centralized government will cause an enormous power vacuum. Macedonia, the linchpin that could unravel the whole region, is teetering, as are Bulgaria and Romania, which are poor enough that civil unrest could come at any moment. And Greece is only getting into a deeper and deeper feud with Turkey.

And, perhaps most ominous of all, problems, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, are being resolved not along the course of individual rights, but along ethnic lines - the same way they have been unsuccessfully approached in the past.

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