- - Monday, September 1, 2014

On a visit to Afghanistan a few years ago, I flew into Kabul International Airport. Upon leaving the facility, I saw smart-looking soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the military side of the airstrip. The Macedonian flag was displayed proudly on their shoulders. It occurred to me that the last time Macedonian soldiers served in Afghanistan, they were under the command of Alexander the Great.

Since 2002, tiny Macedonia has rotated 3,200 troops to assist NATO in war-torn Afghanistan. For a military force of 7,500, that commitment is remarkable.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia, Macedonia has been punching well above its weight in security contributions for years, even though it is no longer part of a great empire. Still, neighboring Greece refuses to let Macedonia join NATO, even though it has met all the criteria for membership.

So what’s the stumbling block? Believe it or not, it’s all about the name.

The region of modern-day Macedonia has been under the control of several regional empires throughout history. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia became an independent state and kept its constitutional name as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece quickly protested on the grounds that Macedonia, which is also the name of Greece’s northern province, implied regional territorial claims.

This claim is absurd.

Macedonia poses no military threat to any of its neighbors — especially Greece. Macedonia is but the size of Vermont and has a population equal to that of Houston. Greece is five times bigger in size and population.

Moreover, Macedonia placed a specific provision in its constitution stating that it has no territorial pretensions toward any neighbors. It can’t get clearer than that.

In 1993, Macedonia was able to join the United Nations under the verbose provisional name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” In 1995, it seemed some progress had been made. Both sides accepted a U.N.-brokered interim accord in which Greece agreed not to block Macedonia’s integration into international organizations such as NATO, so long as it called itself “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” That accord was to last until a mutually acceptable name was found.

By 2008, after a rigorous, nine-year process, Macedonia had met all the criteria to join NATO. Given the interim accord with Greece, Macedonians anticipated that they would be invited to join the alliance at that year’s NATO summit.

They were wrong. Greece unilaterally vetoed Macedonia’s accession over the name issue.

The International Court of Justice ruled that Greece’s veto was in blatant violation of the 1995 interim accord, but Greece flouts that ruling to this day. Unless Athens budges, Macedonia once again will miss out on membership at the NATO summit this week in Wales.

This is a pity. NATO’s open-door policy mobilizes Europe around collective trans-Atlantic defense. It also promotes democracy, stability and security in the North Atlantic region by enticing countries to become part of the alliance through positive democratic and military reforms. If the door closes on Macedonia, aspiring NATO members could be discouraged from undertaking democratic reforms that would qualify them to join the alliance someday.

Macedonia would be a welcome addition to NATO, and its membership would contribute to regional stability in southeastern Europe. Greece’s pertinacious opposition over the name issue and the illegality of its position under international law have jeopardized NATO’s open-door policy. Greece should work with Macedonia to seek reconciliation, and the U.S. should play a leading role in making that rapprochement happen.

A scholar on trans-Atlantic relations, Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy Studies.

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