SOFIA, Bulgaria -- WHEN analysts and diplomats point with horror to the expanded war that could come next in the Balkans, they always point first to this little country that was for centuries the wellspring of the Balkan wars.
Only recently, and still imperfectly, "de-communized," Bulgaria could easily divert the people's attention to nationalism today by asserting historic claims to Macedonia, which has declared independence from Yugoslavia but which has not yet been recognized by most of the world.
And if Bulgaria, with 9 million people, were to claim Macedonia, whose 2 million people speak a dialect of Bulgarian, that could well be the match to ignite all the volatile countries and regions that surround the enveloping war in Bosnia.
Except that, amazingly, is not happening. Bulgaria early on in the 16-month Yugoslav war asked for and received monitors from the European Community, monitors who are already based along the Bulgaria-Macedonia border to show that nothing untoward is going on.
Ideologically, Bulgarian leaders have diverted old claims to Macedonia by recognizing Macedonia as a "state." The old idea of a historically amorphous Macedonian "nation" would have claimed members in at least three countries.
The border between Bulgaria and Macedonia, which I just traveled peacefully over, is quiet and bucolic in the full foliage of autumn.
There has been not even a rumor of troop movements or subversive attempts from here. Indeed, Bulgaria's democratically elected leaders could scarcely be more adamant about their position.
"We really do wish to have as many guarantees as possible," Filip Dimitrov, the prime minister, told me. "We are ready to do all of our part, and we have been very strict in keeping all the rules.
"Any attempt to solve the Balkans question today in old Balkan terms would be a disaster."
"We hope the European Community will promptly recognize Macedonia," President Zheled Zhelou also told me. "We expect the U.S. to do so. What we insist upon in this whole thing is to isolate and cordon off the hotheads.
"We are firmly committed not to get involved either with arms or with human power. We are also advising other Balkan states not to get involved.
"We are all burdened by a complicated and difficult past. Should one of the countries get involved in military actions, that would threaten to revive all the old fears."
That possible (prospective?) "Lebanonization" is on many minds in many ways. Svetozar Stojanovic, the leading adviser to the moderate President Dobrica Cesic of the rump Yugoslavia in Belgrade, warned me of worse still to come. He and the Serbian prime minister are trying heroically to stop the war, but only the opposing Serb government has the soldiers and the arms.
"Could this war spread to become a new Balkans war?" he asked rhetorically as we sat in his office in the federal building in Belgrade. "It might. But I am afraid of something worse.
"There are already signs of volunteers from Iran in Bosnia to support the Bosnian Muslims, and there are rumors of some Orthodox Russian volunteers there to support the Serbs.
"If we get this kind of internationalization, it's a real nightmare."
Indeed, the American embassies in this confused and distraught region are deeply worried about still broader repercussions -- a spreading of the Yugoslav war into Russia itself. Boris Yeltsin's conservative opposition is pushing Slav unity in Russia. If Yeltsin goes, he'll be replaced by men similar to the radical Serb leaders. Russia for centuries supported the Serbs against the Ottoman Turks, so today Russia's nationalistic opposition is feeding off the idea of the Yeltsin government "selling out" by voting sanctions against Serbia.
Meanwhile, the fanatic Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, the author of the Serb war, has been secretly enlarging the economic scope of the war. He is breaking the Western embargo against Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia by running money and orders for goods in large quantities through his old Communist Party comrades, using Cyprus banks.
And so, once again, the litany already is clear: If the Serb soldiers, paramilitaries and thugs win in Bosnia and the north, they will turn their attention to the Serb-controlled area of Kosovo in the south and "ethnically cleanse" it of its 90 percent Albanian population. This would almost surely bring in Macedonia and Albania, and Albania has a military treaty with Turkey, and, and, and . . .
Those same "and, and, ands" have been the stuff of Balkan wars too many times before. This time, at least one country has learned a long lesson of history, and Bulgaria instead insists upon saying, "but."
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.