- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

Greece is being “irrational” in opposing Macedonia’s bid to join NATO because it objects to the country’s name, the Balkan nation’s foreign minister says.

Macedonia has redoubled its efforts to join the Western alliance ahead of NATO’s spring summit but finds itself still blocked because Greece has a northern province also named Macedonia, which has deep historical significance to the Greeks.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki complained that Greece’s position is unreasonable.

“This would be like Canada and Mexico opposing the name ‘United States of America’ because it includes ‘America’ and America is larger than the U.S.,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times.

The dispute dates to 1991, when Macedonia, one of seven states to emerge from the rubble of Yugoslavia, declared independence under its constitutional name, “Republic of Macedonia.” The name aroused fears in Athens that Macedonia had designs on Greek territory, a charge the Macedonian government in Skopje vigorously denies.

Greece’s link to the name dates to the fourth century B.C. and Phillip II of Macedonia, father of the ancient Greek hero, Alexander the Great.

Greece blocked NATO from issuing an invitation to Macedonia at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit and is expected to do so again at the May’s Chicago summit without a resolution to the issue. All existing 28 NATO nations must approve a new member.

Vassilis Kaskarelis, Greece’s ambassador to the United States, said his country merely wants Macedonia to add an adjective like “Upper” or “North” to its name.

“You cannot have two kinds of Macedonia without a distinction,” he said. “To give just one example, they are exporting Macedonian wine, but Greece is also exporting Macedonian wine.”

Mr. Kaskarelis argued that Greece had made a “huge compromise” by agreeing to a composite name, noting that in the 1990s most Greeks opposed any use of the word “Macedonia.”

Mr. Poposki said Macedonia hoped for a “mutually acceptable” solution to the dispute, but he faulted Athens for the stalemate.

“If we have a constructive counterpart on the Greek side, this can be solved tomorrow,” he said. “But it depends on the decision-making process in Athens, which does not show signs of being based on reason and rationality but more on emotions and unrealistic [fears].”

Negotiations have been sidelined, as Greece struggles with its financial crisis. Mr. Poposki said the new Greek government is “bringing things 15 years backwards” by refusing to engage on the issue.

Membership in NATO is Macedonia’s top strategic priority. The country is one of the highest per-capita contributors to the international coalition in Afghanistan, with a 165-man force assisting in military police training.

“We have grown from an importer of security to an exporter of security,” Macedonian Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi said in an interview last week.

Mr. Besimi called his country’s accession to NATO “as important as the independence of Macedonia,” saying that it would benefit Macedonia on many levels, including economically.

“Foreign investors need stability,” he said. “And NATO membership is a sign of stability.”

Mr. Besimi also argued that NATO, which intervened in the Balkans twice in the 1990s, has a unique interest in the region’s integration.

“We, as a region, have faced many armed conflicts in the last 20 years, and a lot of resources have been given to bring peace in the region,” he said. “Now, the challenge is to make this peace sustainable.”

Macedonia’s NATO bid received a boost in December when the International Court of Justice ruled 15-to-1 that Greece had “breached its obligation” under a 1995 interim accord by not allowing Macedonia to join NATO under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” which is the name it uses at the United Nations.

Macedonia has also been a candidate for European Union membership since 2005, but negotiations have stalled over the same dispute.