The Balkan thicket

April 07, 1993

The struggle between Serbia and its former Yugoslav compatriots menaces Europe with not one but two wider wars. The first will not happen, because the countries concerned have taken steps to prevent it. The second is at the hypothetical but imminent stage, where anything might happen.

This danger area is the southern tier of Yugoslavia, where all the players once lived under Turkish rule. The most worried country is Albania, because ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a formerly autonomous province of Serbia, fear ethnic cleansing.

Albania could not refrain from aiding Albanians being murdered, whether it was militarily capable of facing Serbia or, as it happens, not. This would internationalize the conflict. Islamic peoples would be more agitated to aid the Albanians, as true Middle Easterners, than they are the Bosnian Muslims further north. Turkey, maintained by the West as a formidable military power to block Soviet expansion, could hardly resist a role of regional policeman sympathetic to Albania.

Bloodshed in Kosovo might well spread to Macedonia, the southern-most Yugoslav republic, which claims independence but is hardly viable. It is nearly 30 percent ethnic Albanian and receiving refugees daily. Albania and Turkey would be sucked in there, too. Bulgaria is involved because the majority Macedonians are close kin to Bulgarians.

If Macedonia is going to be carved up by Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia, Greece is concerned. Greece objects to Macedonia's name, on the ground that ancient Macedonia was part of Greek culture and partly within the boundaries of modern Greece. The Greek government fears that Macedonia would covet Greek soil. Macedonia counters that its name was widely used for the current region and Slavic people in the Middle Ages. More to the point, the current stable borders resulted from land grabs by Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia from Turkey after World War I, with Albania not yet in the game. A collapsing Macedonia could reopen border issues.

The war so far is in the north, where Austro-Hungarian power once held sway. The siege of Sarajevo is one year old. For historic reasons, Germany protects Croatia; Italy is interested in Croatia; Austria nestles Slovenia; Greece and Russia feel sympathy for Serbia based on religious ties; Islamic countries feel for the Bosnian Muslim minority; Hungary is concerned for the Hungarian minority in Serbian Vojvodina; France was once protective of Serbia but is no longer.

Whatever atrocities happen, these countries are probably not going to war over them. A very active diplomacy is needed to ensure the same for the southern tier, where the Yugoslav civil war is likely to break out as soon as it ends in Bosnia.

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