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The West Overlooks Macedonia as Serbs Raise Political Stakes

THE West's slow response to the Serbian assault on Bosnia is being played out once again, this time in Macedonia.

After declaring independence from Yugoslavia in September 1991, Macedonia met all the West's criteria for diplomatic recognition - multiparty elections, market reform, and human rights improvements - but it remains unrecognized. Now, with Serbian pressure mounting, the former Yugoslav republic sees recognition as the thin line of hope between survival as an independent state and economic, moral, and political collapse.

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The combination of a Greek blockade on Macedonia over its choice of name and Macedonia's obedience to sanctions on Bosnia, its largest trade partner, has made life difficult for the young country. Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov has warned that, without foreign loans and capital, the already uneasy situation will become untenable.

Two well-sourced accounts underscore the Serbian threat, not just to Macedonia, but to the whole south Balkan region.

The first is from an experienced Balkan analyst who spent 10 days in Macedonia last month talking with top officials and the Albanian minority. At the time of his visit, moderate Albanians and the orthodox Slav Macedonian majority still saw Mr. Gligorov as the only politician capable of holding Macedonia together against Serbia's political and military pressure.

But options for Western deterrence against the Serbs could be narrowing. The United Nations and the European Community ultimately may have to authorize the use of force for peacekeepers protecting Macedonia. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has opened the door for such action in Bosnia, suggesting earlier this month that peacekeepers be allowed to use force against the warring factions once a peace plan was signed.

If Macedonia's current leaders fail to get the security that would follow from UN recognition, they will lose credibility and ground to more radical nationalists.

The UN sent 700 peacekeeping troops to Macedonia in February to mount watches on the republic's borders with Serbia, the Serb-occupied province of Kosovo, and Albania. The Gligorov government welcomed the peacekeepers but would still prefer full recognition by the world body.

An experienced former Albanian diplomat who recently returned from a similar factfinding visit to Macedonia offers a corroborating account. Albania, he says, naturally has its self-interest. It sees itself in the same position as Macedonia, caught in the powder-keg atmosphere that has gripped the entire Balkan region ever since Belgrade launched its war in June 1990.

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Albania has even bleaker economic prospects than Macedonia and its need for Western support is more desperate, the diplomat says. The government in Tirana dreads any southern extension of Serbian aggression just as much as the Gligorov government in Skopje does. To Tirana, the stability of the present Skopje government is crucial to security for the region. President Turgut Ozal of Turkey and Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev both visited Skopje last month - warnings to Serbia of their own interest in re gional stability.

From all current accounts, moderation in Macedonia is losing ground and the key to the situation rests increasingly with the Albanian minority. It has a party in parliament and a share in government, but sees itself as the only ethnic group of the former Yugoslavia that does not now have its own state.

"[The Albanians] are not against Gligorov's Macedonia," says a Macedonian politician, "but they don't wish to integrate with it because their faces are turned toward Kosovo [where they make up 85 percent of the population] and Tirana - not Skopje."

It wasn't always like that. Until a few years ago Yugoslav Albanians knew they were better off in every way than they would be in Albania. But Albania now has a democratic government and ethnic kinship increasingly becomes a talisman for nationhood.

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