MACEDONIA TRAPPED IN LIMBO Disputed name blocks recognition

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA — SKOPJE, Macedonia -- A senior Western diplomat in Yugoslavia calls it "Little Mac," squeezed as it is between the giant hamburger buns of Serbia and Greece.

Tiny Macedonia is still a would-be country, the only former Yugoslav republic trapped in diplomatic limbo since declaring independence in November 1991.


Its capital, Skopje, was euphoric when sovereignty was declared: Macedonia, it seemed, was on the brink of independence without the violence that has killed tens of thousands of people in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Only Greece stood in the way of Macedonia's full recognition.

Greece's objection was quintessentially Balkan: To the outside world it seems absurd. To the people of the region, it is all too understandable and stokes fierce passions.


Greece has blocked European Community recognition of Macedonia because it says that Macedonia shares its name with the northern Greek province of Macedonia and implies territorial claims. Greece has particular claim to the name Macedonia because the province was the birthplace of the most distinguished of all Macedonians, Alexander the Great, and his father, Philip of Macedonia.

If Macedonia wants to be recognized it must assume a different name, say the Greeks. Even as late as last spring, senior foreign diplomats in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, were saying privately that Greece's position was foolish and that Athens would eventually relent.

However, the Greeks never gave anyone reason to think so.

"Why in France and Italy do they call mixed-fruit desserts 'macedoine de fruits?' Why? Because it is just a mixture of different fruits and has no real character of its own," said one Greek diplomat. "It shouldn't be independent."

When the European Community finally accepted Greece's argument, Skopje's euphoria turned to gloom. Macedonia remains isolated, unrecognized and on the brink of economic collapse.

Lately, however, the giant hamburger buns of Greece and Serbia have mounted a new squeeze, from below and above, by floating proposals that Macedonia should be dismembered and its territory divided by the four neighboring countries : Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania.

The partition was advanced by radical Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj in an interview with a leading Greek daily. Mr. Seselj is a close political ally of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose government publicly dismissed the intentions of Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic to extend diplomatic recognition to Macedonia.

Meanwhile, the Greeks have voiced fears that President Bush, as a lame duck, may push the matter of Macedonia's recognition before the end of the year.


It is beginning to dawn on many Macedonians that independence can only come at too high a price, and in a fashion that would be more painful than the country's 2.3 million people are prepared to endure.

Talk about an international conspiracy is fueled by revelations made by the foreign minister, Denko Malevski, that Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Moch has offered "financial compensation" if the Macedonians would not call their country Macedonia.

Skopje itself is rife with rumors of other conspiracies and betrayals.

"A single incident and you could have a war here involving Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania," said writer Jovan Pavlovski. "We have seen this happen twice in this century."

As always in this powder-keg region of tribes, Macedonia's four neighbors have done their utmost to frustrate all steps the government of President Kiro Gligorov was taking toward creating a new country. Directly or indirectly, all four are challenging Macedonia's right to independence.

The Greeks and Serbs have blocked landlocked Macedonia's access to oil, food and raw materials, producing catastrophic shortages and idling factories and enterprises.


Bulgaria and Albania pose challenges to the very essence of the Macedonian nation. The Bulgarians maintain that the Macedonians are not a distinct people, but belong by language and culture to Bulgaria. And Albanians are unwilling to accept a Macedonian state because Macedonia's western section is the home of an estimated 700,000 ethnic Albanians.

Pressed from all sides, a significant part of the Macedonian establishment is now having second thoughts about independence. "We of course want our independence to be recognized," said Milan Gurcinov, a university professor.

"But eventually I think Macedonia will have to join Serbia and VTC other former Yugoslav republics in some form of a loose confederation or a trading bloc."