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Regional Outlook : Macedonia Sees Highway as Its Route to Recovery : Former Yugoslav republic seeks funds for east-west corridor. But Greece, Serbia could put brakes on project.


SKOPJE, Macedonia — After a two-year struggle to escape the Yugoslav war and economic sabotage by Greece, the people of newly independent Macedonia have found the road to recovery. All they have to do is build it.

Macedonia and its Balkan neighbors are drumming up funds and organizing work teams for a major east-west highway, railroad and utility project that will create a corridor between the Adriatic and Black seas through Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey.

A natural crossroads of the southern Balkans, Macedonia would benefit from the thousands of toll-paying trucks shuttling goods across the peninsula, especially if nationalist conflicts and U.N. sanctions continue to hamper traffic along the more traditional north-south routes linking Western Europe with southern markets.

The project, which also envisions regional cooperation on air-traffic control and telecommunications development, seems like a natural for bolstering post-Communist economies as well as encouraging friendly relations and interdependence in what has often been an unstable corner of Europe.

Turkey also stands to enhance its influence in the region if and when the corridor becomes a reality, since the new rail and traffic links would open secure markets and strengthen ties with the countries it ruled for centuries as the Ottoman Empire.

But therein lies the one hitch in a project that otherwise looks like the fast track to the "new world order": Turkish influence in the southern Balkans will likely irritate both Greece and Serbia, adding more pressure to the already explosive concoction of political, economic and religious rivalries in this part of the world.

The idea to rebuild the ancient Via Egnatia of the Roman Empire was actually born of the conflicts that have disrupted modern trade routes in the Balkans over the last two years.

Greece is outraged over this former Yugoslav republic's insistence on using the name Macedonia, claiming it implies territorial ambitions on the northern Greek province of the same name. A government-inspired economic blockade aimed at pressuring Skopje authorities to change the country's name deprived the 2 million people of Macedonia of crude oil for three months last year, poisoning already sour relations and compelling the government to look for an alternative to the usual fuel-importing route through the Greek port of Thessaloniki.

"This corridor should mean the border crossing with Greece will always be open, because there will be no political reason to block Macedonia if we have an alternative," said Antoni Pesev, minister for planning, civil engineering, telecommunications, transport and environment.

He shrugs off concern that the project could worsen relations with Greece, noting that Macedonia's southern neighbor is a natural trading partner for this new nation and will be welcome to take part in the regional undertaking whenever it allows the political fever over the name issue to subside.

Deputy Foreign Minister Risto Nikovski agrees but says he fears the government in Athens remains resistant to cooperation, even on projects of mutual advantage.

"There are direct and indirect benefits for Greece to help establish the east-west corridor. Its claims that this is some kind of Islamic connection between Turkey and Albania are just political manipulations. It should be clear to both sides that our natural, real, long-term interest is in good relations with Greece," Nikovski said.

Western diplomats in this Macedonian capital tend to take the host country's side in dismissing the potential complications in ties with Greece.

"Everything the Greeks have done here brought about their worst nightmares," one envoy commented, expressing enthusiasm for the corridor.

The other major impetus for the regionwide push for east-west linkage has been the war in the former Yugoslav federation, which over the past two years has swept from Slovenia to Croatia and now engulfs Bosnia-Herzegovina, blocking the only major highway from Western Europe to the southern Balkans.

Alternative trucking routes exist through Hungary and Romania, but those roads are in deplorable condition and require too much fuel and time to be cost-effective.

Some semblance of a road route already exists along the new east-west corridor, but several stretches are too primitive for heavy truck traffic--like the five-mile cobblestone swath linking Macedonia and Bulgaria east of Kriva Palanka. Also, at least two-thirds of the 85-mile Albanian segment is deeply potholed, narrow, mountainous or unpaved.

There are currently no east-west rail links, although a path was surveyed and graded during the first years after World War II for a project that was abandoned in 1948 because of the Greek civil war and Yugoslavia's break with Moscow and its Eastern European satellites. Much of that 45-year-old ground preparation remains useful and should speed construction of the railroad.

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