SKOPJE, Macedonia — It was hard to imagine feeling threatened by Spase Shuplinovsky, the slightly scruffy, middle-age co-president of the Assn. for the Protection and Spreading of Truth about Alexander the Great.
An eccentric, undoubtedly. But almost unbelievably, conflicting theories about a history going back two millennia have brewed up a volatile cocktail of threats for this small, landlocked country now known to the world as the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
Shuplinovky's coffee grew cold at a Skopje cafe as he argued endlessly from a heavily annotated, dog-eared Croatian translation of ancient Greek chronicles. His thesis was that Alexander the Great was Macedonian, not a Greek. Whether he was spreading truth or delusion, he certainly hit the mark by summing up, "Balkan history cannot be digested."
Neighboring tables took no notice of his talk. Few of Macedonia's 2 million people may have heard of Shuplinovsky or his 135-member association.
But most of the majority ethnic community would agree with him that they are now ethnic Macedonians: Orthodox Christians, Slavs, but not Bulgarians or Serbs. Just Macedonians.
And that is totally indigestible for neighboring Greece.
The Greeks believe that the name renews Slavic claims on historic Macedonia, a large part of which is now the northern Greek province of Macedonia and populated mostly by ethnic Greeks. Athens has therefore applied maximum diplomatic pressure. On Feb. 16, Greece defied its NATO and European allies to impose a near-total economic blockade.
The resulting crisis is crippling the fragile Macedonian economy and may stoke unrest in the local ethnic Albanian Muslim minority.
Some diplomats fear that any destabilization of Macedonia could suck greedy regional states into a new Balkan war just as hopes are rising for an end to the Bosnian conflict to the north.
The Macedonian question, according to French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, is still "an abscess in the heart of Europe."
So far, the Macedonian government has reacted with the cool that has been its trademark since 1991, when it chose independence instead of life in the Serb-dominated rump state of Yugoslavia.
Macedonia was once the poorest republic in Yugoslavia, but its careful management and civilized approach matches that of much richer Slovenia. And unlike Slovenia, the Skopje government also contrived to avoid all armed conflict with Serbia.
Moderate and measured leadership by President Kiro Gligorov, a 77-year-old former Yugoslav bureaucrat, has helped keep Macedonia miraculously clear of all recent Balkan violence.
"The factors that could lead to a spreading conflict are very complex. So far there is nothing," Defense Minister Vlado Popovski said.
But Popovski, a former law professor, knows that Macedonia has been at the crossroads of more wars than most people can count in the last century.
Stiff-backed Yugoslav generals used to monitor an extraordinary three-way microcosm of the Cold War hemming in Macedonia: the Warsaw Pact's Bulgaria, NATO member Greece and Maoist Albania. Ideologies may have softened, but they and Serbia still make an awkward group of neighbors.
"To escape from the claws of the hawks we may have to run. . . . We must hope that the strength of any potential attack would be balanced by other pretenders (to our territory)," Popovski said.
His country has no other option, with what he said was an army of just 15,000 men, an armored brigade with no tanks and 40 air force pilots with no warplanes.
Macedonia can count on some friends to stop it from becoming the next Balkan domino to fall. Acting with rare foresight, the United States and Western countries decided early in the Yugoslav crisis to protect Macedonia by pre-positioning U.N. peacekeepers on its border with Serbia.
An initial U.S. contingent of 300 arrived last July to join a mainly Nordic battalion of 1,000 troops. Their number may soon rise to 500.
Macedonians feel still stronger now that 60 countries have recognized their independence. Seven European Union states took the step in December, and the United States followed in February, although it stopped short of establishing full diplomatic relations.
A coalition government has so far papered over divisions between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians. And while Athens sponsored demonstrations against Macedonia's use of national symbols claimed exclusively by Greece, Skopje remained quiet.
"People here would rather have a beer than a fight," one local journalist said.
The multiethnic atmosphere that inspired the term \o7 Salade Macedoine \f7 can still be found in the capital's Greek-style bars, Central European cake shops and Italian espresso cafes. The domes and minarets of a dozen Ottoman Turkish mosques rise over the low tiled roofs of the old town.
Turkish Ambassador Suha Noyan said the small remaining Turkish minority is the best-treated in the Balkans.