SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The prospect of sending U.S. forces to Macedonia -- as President Clinton has suggested -- raises much less anxiety here than in other places in the Balkans.
But the view from here is that it may be only a matter of time before the fires of the Balkan civil war set Macedonia ablaze.
"And when that happens, it would mean without doubt a new Balkan war," said Risto Nikovski, Macedonia's under secretary for foreign affairs. "Bosnia is basically a civil war. Here, five or six countries would be involved. Think how much more impossible that would be. It would mean a war in Europe that would last for the next 15 years."
Politics, like coffee, is taken strong in Macedonia, which declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Plots hatch easily in the cafes of Skopje's old Turkish quarter. Vendettas thrive in the mountains.
So it might be tempting to dismiss apocalyptic forecasts like Mr. Nikovski's that fighting in Macedonia, unlike that in Bosnia, could engulf first the Balkans and then the rest of Europe -- except for two things.
First, virtually everyone familiar with the Balkans agrees. And second, the deadly mixture of history, geography and tangled tribalism that doomed Bosnia exists here in even greater abundance.
Underscoring its importance, President Clinton said Tuesday that one option he was considering was sending U.S. troops here to bolster the international peacekeeping force that keeps a wary eye on Macedonia's border. At his news conference yesterday, he said the option was still being studied by military advisers.
The navel of the Balkans
Macedonia lies in the navel of the Balkans. Wars of conquest have swept across it for centuries, leaving behind a mixture of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Turks and Gypsies. When the French concocted a mixed fruit salad, they called it a macedoine.
Of the nation's 2 million people, roughly two-thirds are Slav and one-third are Albanian. Left to themselves, these tribes are living together peacefully now. The real threat comes from outside.
These are not the best of times. The Communist system is dead, but a market economy has not arrived. Unemployment is about 25 percent.
Before Macedonia declared independence two years ago, Serbia was its best customer. The United Nations trade embargo on Serbia has been "devastating" for Macedonia's economy, said G. Norman Anderson, an American diplomat who heads the Skopje office of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
And if fighting spreads to Macedonia, it would bring in its neighbors -- Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania -- first to protect their kin in Macedonia and then, as so often before, to carve it up. If that happened, Turkey and Romania would not be far behind.
This doomsday scenario is so plausible that the United Nations, in its first attempt at preventive diplomacy, has posted 700 troops here to watch Macedonia's borders. That is the force that U.S. troops would reinforce if Mr. Clinton decided to send them.
The road to a Macedonian war passes through Kosovo, a semiautonomous province of Serbia whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. One of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's first appeals to Serb nationalism, in 1989, was to take away Kosovo's self-government.
It's assumed that if Serbian "ethnic cleansing" were turned loose on Kosovo, refugees would pour into western Macedonia, which has a majority Albanian population.
"In that case, Serbian troops would pursue the Kosovo Albanians," predicted Janusz Sznaider, the Polish chief of civil affairs for the U.N. mission here. "In that case, Albania would intervene. And in that case, Macedonia would become the base of operations for both Serb and Albanian troops."
Neither its northern nor southern neighbors, Serbia and Greece, respectively, have recognized Macedonia's independence. Greece even disputes its right to use the name Macedonia, and Serbian generals have been quoted as saying their forces could sweep through Macedonia "in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee."
Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece have already fought two wars in this century -- the two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 -- for control of Macedonia. Because of their present hostility to independent Macedonia, it's assumed by officials here that Serbia and Greece would take advantage of any turmoil to slice up Macedonia again.
Bulgaria, which lost both Balkan wars, was the first country to recognize Macedonia and officially denies any interest in changing the border between them.
Yet Bulgarians and Macedonians are ethnically close -- Bulgarians say that Slavic Macedonians are really Bulgarians, a claim that infuriates the Macedonians. In the doomsday scenario, these blood ties are likely to bring Bulgarians piling into a Macedonia at war.
"If fighting begins, it gets uncontrollable if the Americans are not there," said Philip Dimitrov, the former prime minister of Bulgaria who created its policy of support for Macedonian independence.
"Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding over our borders and telling how their cousins are being killed?"
Even Bulgarians like Mr. Dimitrov, who oppose intervention, say the government in Sofia would be under irresistible pressure to dive in.
So at that point, the battle would involve a former Warsaw Pact nation (Bulgaria), a NATO member (Greece) and rump Yugoslavia, once a leader of the world's nonaligned nations. In a war among them, Macedonia would be virtually helpless.
The Yugoslav army left Macedonia with all its heavy weapons two years ago to fight in Croatia. Macedonia's army today is no more than 7,000 soldiers with machine guns and a few armored personnel carriers. The U.N. troops are here to observe, not fight, and have told the government they cannot defend Macedonia.
The government is relatively moderate, led by former Communists backed by the Albanian minority party.
The largest single party in opposition is the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, or IMRO, a reincarnation of the party that spread terror though the Balkans between the two world wars in support of Macedonian independence.
One of its leaders, former Vice President Dragi Arsov, said the new IMRO had mellowed. "The old IMRO had uncontrolled elements and excesses," he said, but "all the violent things they did -- that's history."
The poisons of history
But history poisons the Balkans in a way that baffles the rest of the world. The Bosnian fighting is one example. So is Greece's claim to the name Macedonia and its insistence that Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror in the 4th century B.C., was really Greek.
Because of Greek protests, Macedonia has entered the United Nations not as a wholly independent entity but as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." Its flag, bearing Alexander's 16-pointed star, does not fly outside U.N. headquarters in New York.
Greece maintains that if Macedonia were allowed to use its real name, it would then threaten the northern Greek province of Macedonia.