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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 20:08 GMT 21:08 UK

Analysis: Will the conflict spread?

by Jonathan Eyal

The protests last week outside the American, British and German embassies in Macedonia are the first public manifestation of a potential anti-Western backlash in the Balkans.

Avoiding a wider Balkan war was one of the reasons which Nato gave for its action against Yugoslavia. The fears are real. But, at least for the moment, they remain fairly slim.

Kosovo: Special Report
The war in Kosovo will get much worse. But it will be contained, and the Balkans will not go up in smoke. This is about the only good regional story for many months.

Macedonia is the most critical area. A former Yugoslav republic created on territory historically coveted by both Bulgaria and Greece, the Macedonians are still fighting for international recognition of their name, flag and national identity.

Their disputes have not been solved. But the critical security concerns have at least been alleviated.

Greece, which objects to many Macedonian claims of statehood, has accepted an international mediation.

[ image: 'Milosevic is unlikely to take on Nato on two fronts']
'Milosevic is unlikely to take on Nato on two fronts'
And Bulgaria, which denied even the existence of a Macedonian nation, is now cooperating closely with its neighbour.

Macedonia also includes a large ethnic Albanian minority, which lives in compact masses right on the border of Kosovo and Albania itself.

When it comes to repressing the Albanians, therefore, the Macedonians and Serbs are likely to be allies.

Some of the demonstrators outside Western embassies in the republic expressed their resentment against Nato, mainly because they fear an independent Kosovo.

But the republic also has a serious military presence of roughly 13,000 Alliance soldiers. President Milosevic has vaguely threatened to foment trouble there (the latest anti-Western demonstrations were by ethnic Serbs in Macedonia, a small local community).

'Milosevic may be unpredictable, but he is no fool'

The chances are, however, that Yugoslavia will not meddle too much in Macedonia, at least not at the moment, if only because Milosevic cannot afford to fight a war on two fronts, and any attack on Nato forces in Macedonia will involve ground fighting, precisely what the Yugoslav dictator wishes to avoid.

Milosevic has also threatened to rekindle the Bosnian war. He certainly has the ability to do so: the local Serb militias are dissatisfied with Nato's peacekeepers, who recently dismissed their president.

[ image: Nato's aim is to avoid a larger war in the Balkan region]
Nato's aim is to avoid a larger war in the Balkan region
If Bosnia goes up in flames, Nato's task could become much more complicated.

But, yet again, this is a doomsday scenario which is unlikely to happen and, apart from the incursion of some Yugoslav aircraft into Bosnia last week, the republic has been noticeably quiet.

The Serbs of Bosnia are deeply divided between moderates and extremists, and between two distinct geographic locations.

They are also extremely vulnerable; if they decide to launch any attacks, they will be faced with a counter-offensive from not only Nato but also the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, who have been waiting for an opportunity to reclaim long-lost land. Milosevic may be unpredictable, but he is no fool.

The Albanian question

Albania itself is also a potential worry. The country is eager to help its kith and kin in Kosovo and Macedonia.

But the Albanian state virtually collapsed as a result of economic and political decay two years ago, and had to be resurrected by a European force led by the Italians.

There is a great deal of smuggling of weapons to the Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo.

But the Albanian state is in no position to do anything, and enjoys an explicit security guarantee given by the Americans years ago. Milosevic has no interest in Albania; he is eager to get rid of his own Albanians, rather than acquire new and unwilling subjects.

Further afield, there is Romania and Bulgaria. These two countries are appalled by the violence now taking place in Yugoslavia.

But both want to become members of Nato and the European Union, and just about the last thing they will do is to jump into the conflict.

In a little-noticed event earlier, Nato's Secretary General, Mr Javier Solana, dispatched letters to the leaders of Romania and Bulgaria.

The letters contained a firm security guarantee to these two countries. The corollary of this guarantee is that the two countries should be moderate, and they will be.

There is always the possibility of a flare-up between Greece and Turkey. For the moment, however, both these Nato members have kept a respectful distance from Yugoslavia. All in all, therefore, the situation in the region is under some control.

'The biggest imponderable - Serbia itself'

But, as always in the Balkans, there are additional twists.

One imponderable is the reaction of the neighbouring states to large numbers of Albanian refugees fleeing the war in Kosovo.

The Yugoslav offensive against the Albanians is continuing and may well intensify in the coming days.

Macedonia is unwilling to accept them; when refugees started coming across the frontier last October, Macedonian border guards opened fire.

So, most of the refugees will have to be accommodated in Albania itself. This could precipitate a new economic collapse in that country, and possible incursions of Albanian troops into Kosovo.

In a curious way, however, the biggest imponderable of all remains Serbia itself.

If air strikes continue for a long period of time and achieve their objectives, Serbia will be deprived of much of its military might.

In the process Montenegro, a component part of Yugoslavia now ruled by pro-Western leaders, may chose to leave this ramshackle federation controlled by Milosevic.

A collapse of Serbia will create a strategic void which could encourage almost everyone of its neighbours to take a bite of its territory.

A strong Serbia is a danger for the Balkans. But a collapsed Serbia represents an almost equal danger for the region. Balkan choices were never straightforward. Yet all Europe will have to deal with them in the years to come.

Jonathan Eyal is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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