"The project of Greater Serbia," I was once told by one of the many pessimistic intellectuals in Skopje, "has within it the incurable tumor of Greater Albania. And this cancer will metastasize in Macedonia." The "logic" of enclosing all contiguous minorities into one state, and mustering them all under one flag, was the essence of the Milosevic scheme until it brought destruction on itself. The urgent question now is whether the large Albanian populations living next to Albania in Kosovo and Macedonia have assimilated this lesson or have decided to try to improve on it.

Writing from Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia seven years ago [see "Minority Report," April 18, 1994] it was extremely easy to predict that before long there would be trouble between the Slavic and Albanian populations. The city is semicircled by the Sar Mountains and surmounted by an old Turkish fortress; the mountains are the frontier with Albania and Kosovo. Between 70 and 80 percent of the people of Tetovo are Albanians, and their schedule of grievances was classically nationalist, at least as adumbrated by their spokesman Menduh Thaci, whose name you will be reading again in the newspapers. (He is a kinsman of Hashim Thaci, founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whose Albanian initials, UCK, have been adopted by the new guerrillas operating in the hills above Tetovo.)

Eighty percent of local state jobs were filled by Macedonian Slavs…the police were racist…the Albanian language was not properly allowed in schools and there was no Albanian university…the number of Albanian books in the national library was 150 out of 250,000 (someone had counted them)…Albanians were described as a "minority" in the Constitution, along with tiny groups like Egyptians!… On the table as we spoke lay an Albanian national flag. One could see where this was going. And one could see it, too, when interviewing Ljubco Georgievski, who was then the leader of Macedonia’s right-wing opposition party VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) and is now Prime Minister. From his point of view, the minority was already demanding too much and demonstrating more dissatisfaction with each successive concession. This is the classic formula, where both sides feel themselves to be the endangered ones.

Since then, the idea of a Greater Albania has both advanced and receded. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees fled to Albania proper during the Serbian assault of 1999, and they were warmly received by the people of the poorest nation in Europe. (You may have noticed that people share poverty better than they share wealth.) But they were shocked to discover the sheer backwardness of the country; even the poorest Kosovars are used to ideas like telephones and paved roads. On the other hand, those Kosovars who had to make for the Macedonian border were treated with callousness by the Macedonian police, who made it obvious that they thought there were enough Albanians in their country already. And meanwhile, in Albania proper, the implosion of the ultracorrupt pro-American regime of Sali Berisha had led to a spontaneous popular uprising in which every armory in the country was looted. Those weapons did not stay "in country" for long; they went across to Kosovo and helped give birth to the KLA/UCK. Thus, at just the point when Albania itself was weakest, and at just the stage when many neighboring Albanians might have settled for "autonomy" if they could get it, the militants were in a position to quite literally call the shots. And it is also the militants who find it easiest to raise remittances and volunteers from Albanians living in exile overseas.

In case this complexity isn’t enough for you, there is a further metastasis that might be worth keeping in mind. The Slavic Macedonian language is a close cousin of Bulgarian; irredentists in both countries consider Macedonia to be part of Greater Bulgaria. The symbol of the VMRO party is the Bulgarian lion. Bulgaria itself, in a unique manner, announces that it recognizes Macedonia as a state but not as a nation. (In 1991 Bulgaria changed the date of its national day to March 3, the anniversary of the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878. That treaty, which reflected pan-Slavic triumphalism after the defeat of the Ottomans, awarded almost all of historic Macedonia to Bulgaria. The Great Powers then became nervous about the idea of Bulgaria dominating everything between the Danube and the Aegean, and reversed the decision at the Congress of Berlin the following July. But some Bulgarians are nostalgic still. Between 1941 and 1944 they managed to regain northern Greece with German support.)

At present, Bulgaria is more than anything determined to become a member of the European Union. It is thus on its best behavior and officially has no truck with border disputes or minority scuffles. But if the fighting in Macedonia is not contained, and the Slav majority begins to feel unloved by the West, or gets the idea that it is being asked to make concessions to Albanians under duress, then there will be another external factor to be considered. And the more the identity of a two-nation Macedonia is disputed, the closer it comes to involving both Greece and Turkey, who have enough by way of casus belli as it is. It was also interesting to see that the new helicopter gunships deployed by the Macedonian air force in Tetovo were a "gift" from Ukraine.

Just as before, one is open-mouthed at the startled looks and frowning expressions on the faces of our so-called statesmen. Absolutely everything comes to them as a complete and utter surprise. The Macedonian question is one of the oldest and most toxic issues on the international agenda; it is famously intractable and notoriously destabilizing. Yet there they go again, the diplomats and mediators, scampering to improvise a micro-solution to a macro-problem that was never a question of if, but only of when. Macedonia was the first Balkan territory on which American soldiers set foot, though you would never know that from reading the press or listening to the State and Defense departments. Here is one of the many crises from which a missile shield cannot protect anyone.