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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Name Games: A Volatile Crisis In Macedonia

SALONIKA, Greece -- Ethnic hatreds and territorial rivalries are once more casting shadows over this prosperous Greek port, the largest in the northern Aegean. The wars that have ravaged the former Yugoslavia for 18 months are moving south.


If the worst happens, the crisis will assume dimensions far more threatening than the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Terrible though these wars have been, they are nonetheless confined within the old Yugoslav borders. This time, the fighting is poised to suck in Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey, not to mention Serbia and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Both Greece and Turkey are NATO members, meaning that the Western alliance would be automatically involved. and Russia could hardly be indifferent to so dangerous a conflict next to its borders.


The immediate source of tension seems trivial: What name should former Yugoslav Macedonia adopt to win diplomatic recognition? Its Slav leaders naturally want to stick with Macedonia, which they have used since 1944. But Greece argues that the name has been exclusively Greek for 2, 700 years, and that its use by another state implies a claim on the northern Greek region of Macedonia, of which Salonika is the capital.


Salonika has seen it all before: in 597, when the Slavs and Avars attacked the port; in the 15th century, when the Turks conquered it; in 1912, when the Greek army captured it, and in 1943, when the Nazis deported 50, 000 Sephardic Jews, or one in five of Salonika's people, to Auschwitz.


Outraged Greeks point to maps published in Yugoslav Macedonia that refer to Salonika by its Slavic name, Solun, implying that a Greater Macedonian state should be created at Greece's expense. In Bulgaria, nationalists proclaim that Slav Macedonians are really Bulgarians and that Bulgaria should annex the territory as it did, briefly, in 1878. In Serbia, there are calls for Macedonia to be ruled from Belgrade, as it was between the two world wars.


Meanwhile, a tiny, poor, landlocked republic is lurching from crisis to crisis. Its economy is crippled by a Greek blockade and the indirect impact of anti-Serbian sanctions. Its government is in turmoil because of the failure to win international recognition, and because of tensions with the republic's ethnic Albanian minority.


Last weekend's European Community summit in Edinburgh did little to address these matters. It may prove a costly mistake. For the longer the Macedonian deadlock goes on, the more tragic the outcome is likely to be.


Tony Barber, who takes over this column from Peter Gumbel, is the East European editor of the Independent.