GOTSE DELCHEV, Bulgaria — Dagger-wielding goatherds and vintners lugging 50-year-old hunting rifles stalk the Pirin Mountains, listening as they tend their flocks and truss denuded vines for the starting shot of a fifth ethnic bloodletting this century.
The summons will not come from the military high command in Sofia. The government has vowed neutrality in the conflict destroying this land's Yugoslav neighbors. This peaceful pose has drawn Western plaudits for Bulgaria as an island of stability in a tempestuous realm.
Neither will it be the promise of victory and resolution of the century-old "Macedonian question" that would propel Bulgarians into the medieval savagery on their doorstep. Impoverished and politically drifting, Bulgaria could expect from the current conflict the same ignominious defeat it suffered after four previous wars for Slavic unity and territorial grandeur.
But logic and strategy seldom wield much clout against nationalist passions in the Balkans.
If war spreads to Macedonia, explains would-be warrior Hari Mavrodiev, Bulgarians will be honor-bound to answer "the call of blood."
"We must go and defend our relatives if this war touches them," says the burly, mustachioed paramilitary commander outfitted in camouflage. "If war spills to Macedonia, every man in this region will go there to fight."
The call of blood is a venerated principle by which the poor and backward of the Balkans live. The need to stand by ethnic brothers, no matter how doomed their fight, is the defining measure of nationalist dignity and a convincing explanation for why the region's violent history is compelled to repeat itself.
While officials in the capital of Sofia assure Western leaders of their determination to stay out of the Balkan conflict, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization--a turn-of-the-century terrorist group--has reinvented itself as a quasi-legal nationalist movement. It is arming and training volunteers for battle.
Mavrodiev and fellow activists in the group pay lip service to the official aim of staying neutral. But they readily concede all bets are off if any Balkan neighbor threatens the Slavs of Macedonia, whom Bulgarians claim as their kin.
"We would be among the first to protect Macedonia, because we are conscious of the fact that we would not just be protecting a new country but our own brothers," said Anatoly Velichkov, a revolutionary organization leader in the city of Blagoevgrad.
The brash, 29-year-old artilleryman disclosed that the group is engaged in paramilitary training. He said Bulgaria's loose, poorly applied gun-control laws pose little obstacle to the movement's drive to secure arms.
The group's women's councils are stockpiling food and clothing in the event Slav refugees from neighboring Macedonia begin to pour in, and to ensure rations are ready for men who go off to fight.
The battles would be triggered, as Velichkov and others see it, by a series of events that would destabilize the region. Under these predictions:
* Serbs would spark the crisis by moving to ethnically cleanse Albanians in Kosovo, the southern Serbian province.
* In turn, Albanians in Kosovo, trying to escape Serbian aggression or gather arms and supporters for their fight, would seek refuge in the predominantly Albanian western half of Macedonia, disrupting the ethnic balance there; as a result, Serbian forces would be enticed into Macedonia to eradicate nests of Albanian resistance.
* Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians then would rush to the defense of the Macedonians.
Almost 1,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops, including 300 American GIs, are deployed along the Macedonian-Serbian border in an effort to stare down such an escalation. But the foreign soldiers, like 27,000 comrades deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, are hamstrung with so restrictive a mandate they could do little more than watch, if the worst happens.
Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonia's claim to independence from the former Yugoslav federation roughly two years ago, hoping that according it statehood would protect the territory from Serbian or Greek adventurism, preserving it for eventual union with Bulgaria.
But Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov insists that his 2 million citizens make up their own nation; Macedonians reject claims that their people and language are actually Bulgarian, and they are wary, at best, about Sofia's offers of assistance to them in the event of conflict with the Serbs.
This striving for a separate identity stirs the ire of nationalists like the 17,000 members of the revolutionary organization and the larger mass of Bulgarian society whose unspoken aspirations for unity they represent.
"There is too much tolerance for this principle of self-determination," insists Velichkov, who contends the Macedonian nation is an artificial creation of late Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito.