Mischief in Macedonia

Mischief in Macedonia

Published: March 8, 1994

The New York Times

Even as glimmers of peace appear in Bosnia, Greece is fueling tensions in another former Yugoslav republic, Macedonia, by imposing a strangling economic blockade. Greece's Western allies understand that Athens has had serious problems with Macedonia in the past. But they are losing patience with Greece's bullying tactics against a much weaker neighbor already suffering ethnic tensions.

Ancient Macedonia was the homeland of Alexander the Great. Modern Macedonia was, for most of this century, part Greek, part Yugoslav. During the Greek civil war of the late 1940's, Yugoslavia allied itself with the losing Communist side, and at one point Marshal Tito tried to assert his authority over all of Macedonia. Greece, not yet a NATO member and threatened by what seemed to be global Communism, was traumatized.

But today the roles are reversed. Greece, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, is now protected by NATO. The new Republic of Macedonia, set adrift by Yugoslavia's collapse, is a political orphan and a military cipher, desperately trying to avoid being sucked into the wars of its neighbors. With tensions rising between its Slavic majority and its Albanian minority, Macedonia has worked hard to maintain civil peace.

But Macedonia has no outlet to the sea, leaving its economy hostage to the policies of its neighbors. To the north lies Serbia, whose nationalists openly seek to annex Macedonia as "South Serbia." To the south lies Greece, which has worked itself into a rage because the new republic insists on keeping the name it was known by in the Yugoslav federation -- the Republic of Macedonia. Greeks claim that this name, as well as Macedonia's flag and Constitution, somehow implies a revival of Tito's claim to Greek Macedonia.

Three weeks ago Greece closed off Macedonia's trade lifeline through the Greek port of Salonika, in defiance of all normal rules of peacetime commerce. Greece's European Union partners were outraged and resorted to unusual public criticism. So did Washington. The U.N. is trying to promote negotiations between Greece and Macedonia, but Greece demands concessions first, and maintains its trade blockade.

Until recently, both Europe and the U.S. tried to indulge Greek antipathy to Macedonia. But Athens's latest threat to commerce and its invitation to a wider Balkan war go too far. Greece is a valued ally, but it needs to be told firmly, by its friends, that its tactics on Macedonia are dangerously wrong.

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