In the month prior to late June 1991, when war engulfed the former Yugoslavia, the presidents of two constituent republics, Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia, spared no effort trying to close the widening chasm between Serbia and Croatia. Both men understood that in the event of armed conflict their republics could be the bloodiest theaters of war. Bosnia was especially threatened because it formed a wedge between Serbs and Croats as they attempted to establish the borders of their new nation-states by force.

Macedonia, so far, has escaped the horrors that its twin, Bosnia, has suffered. Yet if war continues in the northern Balkans, a gradual destabilization of Macedonia is almost certain to magnify the threat to its existence and to the wider security of the southern Balkan region. Even with relative peace in the northern Balkans, the tensions between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians make for a fragile state.

The political problems facing Macedonia are remarkably similar to those that destroyed Bosnia. Throughout the Cold War, both republics depended on the Yugoslav federation to ward off the territorial claims of their more powerful neighbors. The majority populations of Bosnia and Macedonia are relative newcomers to the Balkan drama. The Muslim and Slavic Macedonians have assumed the character of a modern nation only since 1945, partly due to a gradual historical maturation and partly due to Marshal Josip Tito, the former Yugoslav dictator, who encouraged Macedonian development to dilute the influence of Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia. Macedonians are no longer satisfied to be cast as extras, the role allotted them during World War II. This time they have claimed center stage by asserting the right to form the core of two new nation-states in the Balkans. This makes the current conflict more complicated than its predecessor of 1941-45.

But the chief similarity lies in the two nations' strategic importance for the region. Dominance of Bosnia is the key to control of the Adriatic coast. Macedonia is the only territory where the Balkan mountains can be traversed from north to south, from Belgrade to Thessaloníki, and west to east, from Durres to Istanbul. Consequently, these two territories have repeatedly suffered as the main theaters of war when European turmoil has thrown the constitutional order of the Balkan region into question. Their geostrategic importance is paramount.

In modern times, Bosnia and Macedonia have always required the protection of an external power to survive, be it the Austro-Hungarians, the Ottomans, or a federal Yugoslavia. Without such guarantees both republics have had to rely on the goodwill of their minority populations for stability and security: the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, the Albanians in Macedonia. If that goodwill is withdrawn -- as happened in Bosnia in 1992 -- the republic is finished.

Macedonia is now heading down the same path as Bosnia. Although ethnic Albanians do not have nearly the Serbs' and Croats' military power, Macedonia is even less well-equipped to defend itself than Bosnia was.


Ignorance of this political reality has led to grave mistakes by international actors in the ongoing drama among Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. A glaring example has been the Clinton administration's Bosnia policy, which has been ridiculed comprehensively by both opponents and supporters of the Bosnian government. The Bosnian government in Sarajevo feels betrayed because Washington's rhetoric in favor of a unified Bosnia was never backed by force. One should either wage war on behalf of the Bosnian government or clearly state that one has no intention of doing so. Washington's great mistake was that it did neither: it held out the prospect of intervention if the Bosnian government's position continued to deteriorate, then did nothing when it came to the crunch.

Clinton's pusillanimity, however, did not endear him to others. The Serbs perceive the Americans as chiefly responsible for the hardships created by U.N. sanctions (even though the sanctions were, of course, approved by all five permanent members of the Security Council). In addition, they believe that the demonization of the Serbs was designed in Germany and manufactured in the United States. The Russians have been alarmed by Clinton's apparent willingness to consider NATO air attacks without consulting them, in a region where Russia believes it has vital interests. The Europeans have been exasperated by Washington's vacillation, provoking one senior official involved in the mediation of the Yugoslav wars to tell the Americans "to piss or get off the pot." Indeed, U.S. presidential hopeful Senator Robert Dole's decision to introduce legislation calling for the lifting of the arms embargo on Bosnia was probably motivated more by the Senate majority leader's wish to embarrass the president at his weakest foreign policy point than by an overwhelming commitment to restoring peace in the northern Balkans.

Some sympathy must be extended to the White House and State Department. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton seized on the public disgust provoked by television coverage of the detention camps run by the Bosnian Serbs. Holding this banner of moral outrage aloft when he assumed office, he remained unaware that it was an insufficient weapon with which to attack the politically complex collapse of the Yugoslav federation. Moreover, the range and depth of foreign policy problems confronting the new Democratic administration was far greater than those facing President Bush, even in his last two years in office.

The core problem was the administration's inability to identify any U.S. interests in Croatia and Bosnia. Initially policy was guided purely by an emotional response to Serbian atrocities. However, the more deeply the United States became involved, the more this moral position was muddied by security implications. The conflict in the northern Balkans involves two key relationships -- one with Russia, the other with Turkey -- that America must redefine following the collapse of communism. In the case of Bosnia, Washington was unable to satisfy Turkish demands without alienating the Russians and vice versa, and this contributed to wild zigzags in policy.

The growing catalogue of failures, however, did not deter the United States from stepping up its interest and diplomatic activity in the area. Vice President Gore became the chief sponsor of the Washington accords, signed in March 1994, which envisaged a federation of Bosnia's Muslims and Croats and a confederation of this new Bosnian entity and Croatia. Following the Washington accords, the Croatian government agreed to lease part of the Adriatic island of Brač to the U.S. military, which established an intelligence-gathering center there.

The accords further increased the influence of Peter Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to Zagreb, who became the key architect of a plan to reintegrate the rebel areas now controlled by separatist Croatian Serbs into Croatia proper. The plan would give the half million Croatian Serbs far more political autonomy than they held before the war in exchange for the reintegration of the territories they now hold_roughly 27 percent of the prewar nation. Throughout 1994, many commentators considered Galbraith's statements on domestic Croatian politics as authoritative as those of President Franjo Tudjman. Despite universal criticism, the White House clearly had no intention of running away from Balkan politics with its tail between its legs.


If the Bosnian and Croatian policies of the United States have been such a failure, how is it that the American approach to the delicate web restraining conflict in the southern Balkans has been so mature? It has been particularly impressive compared with the clownish efforts of the European Union (EU).

A breakdown in relations between Macedonia's Slav majority and Albanian minority would provoke an internal collapse. In such an event, three of Macedonia's neighbors (Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria), if not more, would be forced to consider filling the resultant power vacuum. If war reaches Macedonia, it will no longer matter whether a solution to the Bosnian and Croatian wars can be found_a whole new series of conflicts, distinct from the northern Balkans except in their common origin, would begin.

Two axes are emerging, one dressed in the garb of Eastern Orthodoxy, one veiled in Islamic raiment. These axes run roughly along the geopolitical lines that divide Macedonia. Bulgaria plays a maverick role, entrenched in the Eastern Orthodox camp but historically at odds with both Greece and Serbia over a number of issues. Macedonia is isolated and caught between a unilateral commercial blockade by Greece, which has made fuel and raw materials scarce, and the U.N. sanctions against the rump Yugoslavia, which have deprived Macedonia of its major trading partner. Nevertheless, its very existence as a multinational state prevents the hardening of the two axes. If a war were fought over its territory, it is likely that the conflict would quickly assume some characteristics of an ethnic and religious war such as Bosnia's. This implies an ever-greater struggle for influence between the Belgrade/Athens axis and the Albanian/Turkish alliance.

The spillover of this struggle into the Aegean Sea would be most disturbing. Such a conflict would be much more disruptive to the immediate interests of the United States than the Bosnian war has been. In particular, it would threaten American lines of communication with the Middle East. The EU has never been as concerned as the United States with the strategic importance of the southern Balkans and the Aegean Sea. But the EU does have a special responsibility in the region because Greece is a member state.

The disputes between Greece and three of its neighbors, Macedonia, Albania, and Turkey, highlight the extreme difficulties the EU faces in establishing a common foreign and security policy. Greece has used a variety of reasons to justify its persistent obstructionism. Athens has blocked an EU aid package to Albania (although it relented late last year), resisted Turkey's bid to enter a customs union with the EU (this too has been overcome), and imposed a blockade on Macedonia. Greece has asserted that use of the name "Macedonia" by the former Yugoslav republic implied a claim on the neighboring Greek province of Macedonia. It also objected to Macedonia's use of a Hellenic symbol, the Star of Vergina, which consists of 16 rays surrounding a sunlike disk. It was the emblem of Alexander the Great's dynasty in the fourth century B.C.; Alexander was an ancient Makedon (who bear no relation to the Slav Macedonians of today) whose dominion included Greece. Western diplomats and U.N. officials stationed in Macedonia argue that the blockade worsens the economic difficulties the landlocked state faces. This in turn, they say, undermines relations between Albania and Macedonia, the cornerstone of the latter's stability.

Legally challenged by the EU, Athens justified its actions by claiming that Macedonia was a national security threat. This was a ludicrous argument, but legally the only one that Greece could use to override Maastricht treaty trade statutes. The remaining 11 EU members oppose Greece's regional policy, but they can do nothing about it, and the blockade remains in effect. Public admonishments and mediation efforts have only raised anti-EU sentiment in Greece.

While Greece's stance on Macedonia is self-defeating and presented in an infuriatingly emotional manner, the EU's inability to conduct subtle and effective diplomacy in a region where major armed conflict remains a distinct possibility is disturbing. The contrast is stark between the chaotic, failed diplomacy of the EU and the subtle, if sometimes opaque, American strategy. U.S. policy in the southern Balkans generally suffers from agency overkill. The White House, the State and Defense Departments, and the local embassies are all running apparently separate programs that seem to be heading generally in the same direction but often along different paths. In addition, there have been sharp differences of interpretation among the U.S. diplomatic missions in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, Athens, and Ankara.


The strengthening of American influence in the southern Balkans began after Bulgaria's revolution of 1989, after which the United States intensified its interest in Bulgarian domestic politics. Following communism's collapse in Albania, the United States again invested an inordinate amount of diplomatic capital in a relatively obscure Balkan state, a move that slowly eroded the political influence of Italy and Greece and the military influence of France and Britain. As Albania's ties with the United States have become closer, so has its relationship with Ankara.

The American fascination with picaresque and slightly wacky Balkan bit players was due partly to the shift in Turkey's geostrategic significance after 1989 and partly to a misinterpretation of the Yugoslavian conflict that has been adjusted somewhat since Richard Holbrooke's appointment as assistant U.S. secretary of state. Until 1989, Turkey was important mainly for its role as the most southeasterly bulwark against Soviet access to the Mediterranean Sea and as the only large secular democracy with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey's role has changed. It has competed energetically but largely in vain with Russia for influence in the Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia. Despite this failure, its voice is not disregarded, especially in complex matters like the route of the proposed pipeline that would transport oil from Azerbaijan to the West.

The United States considers Turkey vital to blocking Iranian and Iraqi influence in the region. It served as a base for U.N. operations inside northern Iraq while fighting a vicious war against its own Kurdish population in the southeast of the country. The value of Turkish support for the Middle East peace process would immediately become evident if it were withdrawn. In the Balkans, Turkey's troops are participating in authorized peacekeeping, and Turkey's diplomats, together with the Americans, are attempting to soothe the bitter relationship between Bosnia and Croatia. Turkey has also committed to supplying Albania with weaponry and other military supplies should Albania find itself at war with Serbia over Kosovo.

Dramatic changes in Europe have had a profound impact on domestic Turkish politics. Failed economic stabilization policies, particularly of the current Çiller government, have fueled the electoral successes of the Islamic Welfare Party. But disaffection with traditional secular politics has been strengthened by a widespread perception that the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya are Christian crusades against helpless Muslim populations (and that the West is standing by and letting them happen). Although less radical than other political movements, such as Iran's clerics, Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey's Welfare Party could jeopardize American interests in the region were it to become the leading force in Turkish politics.

The United States' increased interest in the southern Balkans was prompted primarily by its concern about Turkey. However, during the Bush administration and the first half of President Clinton's term, there were indications that the policy was also informed by a desire to isolate Serbia. During that time U.S. policymakers appeared to believe that the spark that could light a wider Balkan war was not Macedonia but Kosovo. This was due in part to the misperception that irrational blood lust rather than calculated territorial expansion was the cause of the Balkan conflict. Warnings issued by both Bush and Clinton to the Serbian government not to stir up trouble in Kosovo were redundant. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević had no intention of opening up a southern front of military conflict on territory that the Serbs already controlled. The U.S. stress on Kosovo was due in part to the pronounced Albanophilia and Serbophobia within State Department ranks.

American attention first focused on the fragility of Macedonia and the ambiguous Albanian role there in early 1994, when Albania's state-controlled media began supporting radicals in the Albanian community of western Macedonia. These radicals wanted no participation by the ethnic Albanians' Democratic Prosperity Party in Macedonia's governing coalition. Understanding the incendiary potential of polarization, American officials warned against meddling, and Albanian President Sali Berisha did as he was told and snuggled back up to his benefactors. Since this incident, American policy has shifted away from the issue of Kosovo and toward four more likely flash points: Albanian-Greek relations, the Macedonian question, and the two Turkish-Greek disputes, over the Aegean and over Cyprus.


American diplomats are working hard to reverse the growing polarization of Greek and Turkish positions and to keep those tension from exacerbating the Aegean and Cyprus disputes. One senior U.S. official in Washington explained that "in order to keep Turkey happy, we have become involved in a delicate balancing act in the southern Balkans. If you appear to favor Turkey too much, Greece becomes nervous and so you need to find a way to calm Athens."

The U.S. State Department has put the juggling act required in the region into the capable hands of three envoys. In negotiating with Greece and Macedonia, Matthew Nimetz has exhibited patience, skill, and an ability to gain both parties' trust, but has yet to overcome the diplomatic gulf between the two and achieve a lifting of the Greek blockade of Macedonia. Richard Shifter sought to broker a normalization of Greek-Albanian relations, and America's overall diplomacy has now borne real fruit. Fresh mediation between Greece and Turkey by U.S. special representative Richard Beattie on the divisive Cyprus issue is just getting under way. President Clinton has supported his envoys with letters to the region's political leaders and given special attention to the war-threatening controversy between Greece and Turkey over Greek territorial claims in the Aegean Sea. He has sent letters to the prime ministers of both countries and dispatched a U.S. battle cruiser to the scene.

Operating largely outside the auspices of NATO, the U.S. Defense Department has stationed two spy planes in northern Albania to monitor troop movements in Bosnia and Serbia. In addition, it has deployed 500 marines in Macedonia, who operate largely on orders from Washington, not from the U.N. peacekeeping mission of which they are theoretically a part. More recently, Clinton has lifted the arms embargo on Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria and promised increased military cooperation between Macedonia and the United States.

This activity may not yet amount to a coherent military strategy for the southern Balkans, but it cannot be entirely haphazard. In the minds of government officials of the southern Balkan region, it makes sense. From Belgrade to Ankara, they are convinced that the United States has a grand regional design. Although each government has a different interpretation, they all exaggerate the importance of even the most innocent American move, increasing expectations of and alarm over American policy.


The United States is still unsure how to deal with the most likely cause of instability in the region -- relations between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians inside Macedonia. There are now strong indications that Washington understands this to be a matter of some urgency. Since the elections in Macedonia last October, ethnic Albanians and Macedonians have clashed over the former's attempt to establish an Albanian-language university in Tetovo, the center of Albanian politics in Macedonia. In January, the leading moderate in the PDP, Abdurahman Aliti, warned in an interview that his party might walk out of both the governing coalition and the parliament in Skopje as a possible prelude to establishing an Albanian assembly in Tetovo. In early February, fears of a breakdown were confirmed when Haliti resigned as vice chairman of parliament over a dispute about the use of identification cards in Macedonia.

Unfortunately, the U.S. mission in Skopje is very weak and has contributed little to attempts at settling the university dispute. If the United States is unable to bring the two sides together and reduce the growing tension in Macedonia, much of its good diplomatic work in the area will have been wasted.

American policy in the region is not borne of altruism but of a clear understanding of Washington's interests. The southern Balkans region remains exceptionally unstable, and its myriad conflicts are probably more than one foreign service can cope with, especially while more pressing catastrophes are nearby. One reason the U.S. State Department has sought to dissuade Croatia from expelling U.N. peacekeepers there is that a massive escalation of fighting in Croatia and Bosnia, which most international agencies fear would result, would further threaten Macedonia's stability. Nonetheless, the United States has done more in the southern Balkans than anybody else and is to be congratulated for its perspicacity. This has been a quiet, if crucially unfinished, triumph for which the Clinton administration deserves due credit.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Misha Glenny is the author of The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War and The Rebirth of History: Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy and a former correspondent for the BBC World Service.
  • More By Misha Glenny