JAZINCE, Macedonia -- In an outpost of dirt roads, mule carts and crudely built brick homes that cling to the forbidding mountainside that separates Macedonia from Serbia, graffiti supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army have already appeared at the village bus stop.
Can the KLA itself, with its guerrilla fighters and its arsenal of Kalashnikovs, be far behind?
That is the question that hangs over this village and country, as people here watch the Serbian province of Kosovo engulfed in violence and worry that the Balkans may go up in flames.
"It's more than obvious that war is going on," says Idriz Bajrami, a retired factory worker and local political leader in a village dominated by ethnic Albanians.
"The great misery is upon Kosovo."
Western powers are trying to prevent hostilities in Kosovo from spilling over into Albania.
But if the conflict were to spill into Macedonia, it would be ground zero of any Balkan war. Small, strategic and landlocked, Macedonia has for centuries been a natural crossroads, prized and fought over.
In a nightmare scenario, the potential for war in Macedonia could draw in all the powers of the area, which might try to assert their national wills.
For now, this is a peaceful place, but it's in a dangerous neighborhood.
A significant ethnic Albanian minority here is tied through family and history to Kosovo's Albanian majority, which is bearing the brunt of the recent Serb security sweep against the KLA.
Once, ethnic Albanians here and in Kosovo could attend school together in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, could work together, even herd sheep and graze cattle together in the high mountains that serve as a natural barrier.
Now, they are separated by a threadbare border.
"The borders are new, but the territories are old and so are the people," says Arben Xhaferi, president of the Democratic Party of Albanians.
To the north, Serbia hasn't formally recognized the border with Macedonia, which broke away from a collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991 without a shot being fired.
To the south, Greece still disputes even the country's name and has successfully lobbied for the United Nations to formally call the country the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Albania, riddled with violence, chaos, and now refugees from the fighting in Kosovo, lies to the west.
Bulgaria is to the east, still smarting over losing Macedonia in the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I.
Surrounded by 'wolves'
Together, the Macedonian neighbors have been called the "four wolves." Instability in the fledging state could bring them to feed.
And within Macedonia's borders is an ethnic mix of 1.9 million people, the majority Slavs, and 23 percent ethnic Albanians.
Patrolling Macedonia's western and northern borders with Albania and Serbia is a 750-member force of U.N. monitors, which has been here since 1993.
The U.S. contingent of 350 soldiers wears the blue hats and helmets of the United Nations and overlooks the border with Yugoslavia. A battalion of Nordic troops keeps watch along the border with Kosovo and Albania.
"Our mission is to observe, monitor and report," says Lt. Col. Randal A. Dragon, who commands the U.S. battalion. "It's business as usual for us here."
The Americans stand watch in outposts along rocky hills. Often, their job consists of watching trucks lumber over the border on a main highway. They also conduct foot patrols into villages.
"It's calm and friendly here," says Pvt. Joseph Miller, 20, of Hagerstown, Md. "People will talk with you. They'll even pull out chairs in the local cafes and ask us to sit down."
Smugglers, some gunfire
Things are a bit more active in the sector patrolled by the Nordic peacekeepers.
According to their commanding officer, Finnish Col. Lauri Ovaska, they've seen smugglers cross the border, apparently ferrying cigarettes and electronic goods. They've also heard shots fired from Albania.
To seal the borders completely, he said, would take 500,000 troops. But he does not anticipate a wider Balkan war.
Ovaska says Yugoslavia and Macedonia have "no hostilities."
"There is no tension between these two countries," he says. "I don't see any reason for these two states to start a war. The same with Albania and Macedonia."
The U.N. forces are proud of their mission, saying their presence has prevented an outbreak of war in a country that has 12,000 troops, three helicopters and a meager arsenal of weapons. When Macedonia gained its independence, the Yugoslav army hauled away virtually everything of military value, including the trucks.
Kiro Gligorov, the 81-year-old president of Macedonia, agrees that all is quiet in his country. Yet in October 1995, he survived a car bomb attack in which he lost his right eye.
Local authorities haven't disclosed the results of an investigation into the assassination attempt, but there was speculation that the attack might have been carried out by the so-called Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. Known as IMRO, the ultra-nationalist group has roots that go back to the beginning of the century.
"For eight years, we have kept our country out of the Balkan conflict. Here, life is led in peace," Gligorov said in an interview in the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
Gligorov spoke of Macedonia's economic advances, its plans to build new road links to its neighbors and its hopes of joining the European Union.
But he also confronted the prospect that NATO troops might be dispatched to the region to prevent conflict from spreading beyond Kosovo.
Senior NATO officials have conducted a fact-finding mission in Macedonia. A joint military exercise will be held here this year.
A number of 'ifs'
"I would be the last person who would wish to see an intervention in Kosovo by NATO forces," Gligorov said. "However, if the situation were to continue to develop as we are witnessing so far, if the number of human victims rises, if there is a continual destruction of homes and roads, and if ethnic cleansing of Kosovo continues, then there would be no alternative to intervention."
Would NATO troops be able to use Macedonia as a staging area?
"By all means, they would be welcome," he said.
Some analysts suggest that Macedonia's greatest problems could be internal, as Slavs and ethnic Albanians struggle to live together. In July 1997, radical Albanians battled Macedonian police in Gostivar.
Tetovo, near the border with Kosovo, is home to a thriving Albanian economy and university that will soon graduate its first class of students.
Gligorov said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic told him last year that "we have a common enemy, and we should fight together against the Albanians."
"I was very persistent that we could not follow the example they are setting in Kosovo," Gligorov said. The government is trying to integrate the ethnic Albanians into society, and there is one ethnic Albanian party in the ruling coalition.
But in Tetovo, Xhaferi's party continues to wield influence, trying to unite Albanians there and in Kosovo.
Could war bring together all Albanians in the region? That is a scenario Xhaferi would like to avoid.
Yet already, he says, the Albanians here are providing political and humanitarian support for those in Kosovo. He admits that military support could follow. And he fears a wider Balkan war.
"We're talking a domino," he says. "It is just timing. The timing will decide when the first domino goes down, and takes the others."
Pub Date: 6/10/98