SKOPJE, MACEDONIA -- To hear Macedonians talk on the streets of their capital, the only ones suffering from the blockade Greece has placed on this landlocked former Yugoslav republic are the Greeks themselves.

"The Greeks are so dumb," said Emran Bajram, a cabdriver. "They've lost all their Macedonian tourists to Turkey." He gestured to a nearly vacant gas station. "Look: There's no line. We always have gas. When I need it, I just fill up," he said.

"We can still get what we need from Turkey," said Irena Dimitrieva, a travel agent. "The only problem is that everybody would love to go to Greece for a holiday."

Indeed, downtown shops are filled with everything from imported cutlery to basketball shoes, and Macedonian women in the latest Italian fashions still crowd Skopje's late-night discos.

But beneath the bravado and flashy goods, Macedonians stand to lose far more than holidays on the Aegean. The trade blockade that Greece imposed Feb. 16 to add economic pressure to a campaign to force Macedonia to change its name, flag and constitution has left the Skopje government struggling to prop up a dismal economy and hoping it can contain nationalist sentiments that could tear the country apart.

Greece has claimed that the name Macedonia and other symbols adopted by the new country in 1991 are historically Greek and that their use reflects Skopje's designs on Greece's northernmost province, also called Macedonia.

"If this embargo is prolonged and if the economic difficulties and tensions are increased, there is no guarantee that there won't be an explosion here," President Kiro Gligorov warned during an interview at his Skopje office.

Factories unable to obtain raw materials have shut down, and many planned enterprises have been aborted, exacerbating unemployment. Gligorov's moderate but fragile coalition, facing elections in November, may fall apart under nationalistic pressures, observers say. The prices of fuel and other basic commodities are kept artificially low by a government that is mortgaging its future to shield its people temporarily from the embargo's effects.

Macedonia's population of 2 million includes substantial Albanian and Bulgarian minorities, and conflicting territorial claims have touched off two Balkan wars in this century.

"If this place comes apart, we have serious problems because I can't imagine it happening without seeing all the neighbors involved," said Victor Comras, the U.S. government liaison to Skopje and likely ambassador if Washington establishes full diplomatic relations. "There have been too many Balkan wars fought over Macedonia."

Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou has ignored pleas from the 11 other members of the European Union to drop the embargo. Gligorov maintains that Macedonia is willing to compromise, but he says Greece keeps making new demands. President Clinton has appointed a special envoy, Matthew Nimetz, to mediate the dispute, thus far without much effect, while the EU has said it will challenge the Greek action in the European Court of Justice.

But some officials in Skopje fear a settlement of the problem will come too late. "We are very close to the edge," said Dimitar Belcev, the Foreign Ministry's undersecretary for economic affairs.

Ironically, government officials here say the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council in 1992 on Yugoslavia for its support of Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia are a bigger problem for Macedonia than the Greek blockade.

The U.N. sanctions have largely cut Macedonia off from its largest trading partner and have cut its land and river links to Western Europe and the former Soviet republics.

There are widespread violations of the Yugoslav sanctions via Macedonia, U.S. and U.N. officials say. But all acknowledge that no country, aside from Serb-controlled Yugoslavia, has suffered more economically from the sanctions and that very little of the promised international compensation has been delivered to Skopje.

The sanctions made Macedonia's outlet to the world via the Greek port of Salonika all the more important. With its rail routes through Yugoslavia cut, "the second and last railway link is with Greece, our very dear neighbor to the south," said Belcev. "The problem is we redirected almost everything over Salonika."

Oil and other goods are now being trucked from Bulgaria or Albania, but transportation costs have risen 30 to 100 percent, according to the government.

Many raw materials no longer can be imported. Of grave concern to the government, for example, is the loss of coke and phosphates needed for the important zinc-smelting industry. And because it is impossible to export such materials as steel plates and copper in bulk, foreign income is dwindling and newly developed markets are being lost. "The Italians are now buying their steel pipes from Turkey," Belcev said.

To free itself from dependence on hostile neighbors to the north and south, the Macedonian government has put a heavy priority on building a 35-mile rail link east to Bulgaria. But the rails needed for the line cannot be shipped from the north, through Yugoslavia, or from the south, due to the Greek embargo. The 70-foot-long rails are too big to truck in by road via Bulgaria or Albania.

Thus far, angry nationalist sentiment here has remained largely beneath the surface. "We're doing all we can to prevent a rapid increase in nationalism, although this is difficult to sustain bearing in mind the situation in Greece and the huge political rallies they are holding," Gligorov said.

Gligorov said that Macedonia's position has been undercut by U.S. reluctance to establish full diplomatic relations. The United States recognized Macedonia in February but has not opened an embassy, a fact attributed here to Greek-American political pressure.

"The worst result of all of this is that some of our neighbors, such as Serbia {the dominant republic in Yugoslavia} ... are drawing inappropriate conclusions, saying that if the U.S. is refraining from sending an ambassador here, then perhaps certain things in Macedonia can be changed," Gligorov said.

But Comras pointed to the 300 U.S. troops who have patrolled Macedonia's border with Yugoslavia since last summer as part of a U.N. monitoring force. "We're evidencing very clearly that we're serious here," he said.