Macedonia seeks acceptance

By: Austin Wright

Macedonia’s renewed push to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has drawn bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but its decades-long dispute with Greece remains a stubborn impediment.

With NATO members gathering in Chicago in just a month, Macedonian Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi met at the Pentagon on Monday with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to discuss the issue, which looms in large part because of the dispute over a seemingly trivial matter: Macedonia’s name.

“Secretary Panetta told Minister Besimi that he looks forward to the country’s future accession to NATO,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said after the meeting in a statement that provided few details of the discussions.

The controversy stems from the 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia, which was divided into several nations, including Macedonia. But, directly to the south, Greece has its own region called Macedonia. Officials there have balked at the double use of the name — and have thwarted their neighbor to the north from joining NATO and the European Union until the matter is settled.

Besimi, who visited the United States in part as a final push to raise awareness of the issue before next month’s NATO summit, insists his country’s name in no way represents a territorial claim to the Greek region.

Membership in the alliance “would be a benefit — for Greece, for all countries in the region and for NATO,” Besimi told POLITICO during an interview at the Macedonian Embassy in Washington. “We can make it happen if we find the way by talking and discussing and looking at each other as neighbors.”

Macedonia is one of four countries actively seeking to join NATO. The others — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Montenegro — still face hurdles, such as the completion of required action plans. For Macedonia, though, the only remaining obstacle is the dispute with Greece.

The country, with a population of just 2 million, has won considerable congressional support for its efforts to join the alliance. For instance, Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) are pushing legislation that would call on President Barack Obama to put the issue on the agenda of next month’s NATO summit.

Last month, a 54-member, bipartisan congressional coalition also urged Obama to ensure that Macedonia receives a NATO bid.

The letter — organized by Turner and Reps. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) — cites the strong consensus among NATO members that Macedonia has met all the criteria and touts the country as a model steward of the alliance’s interests. It lists Macedonia’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — along with its relatively high level of defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product — as reasons the country should be offered membership.

“Macedonia has contributed to the peace, democracy, stability and security in Southeast Europe despite not being a NATO member,” the letter said.

And Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, reinforced this view in a recent speech. “Macedonia should not have been blocked from [NATO] membership in 2008,” he said.

For Macedonia, Besimi pledged continued support for NATO missions, regardless of the outcome of the naming dispute. “We behave, and we act as de facto members of NATO,” he said, noting that 163 Macedonian soldiers are now deployed in Afghanistan — making it the fifth-largest per capita contributor to the International Security Assistance Force.

“We want to make sure NATO can see Macedonia, and the United States can consider Macedonia, a partner for working together for ensuring peace and stability,” he said.

Greece, despite its tremendous military advantage over Macedonia, views its neighbor’s name as a potential threat. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlined its stance in a statement on its website, accusing Macedonia of promoting the prospect of a “Macedonian nation” that would include portions of Greece, Bulgaria and Albania.

The statement also says Macedonian officials have co-opted Greek symbols and historical figures, such as Alexander the Great.

Macedonia was allowed to join the United Nations under a provisional name — the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — and there have been a number of ideas floated for altering the country’s name permanently to satisfy Greece. New Macedonia and Northern Macedonia have been suggested, but Macedonian officials have been reluctant to support a name change.

Besimi made clear Macedonia is open to discussing the issue, saying that his country has much to gain from a resolution of the dispute. Joining NATO, he said, would spur the flow of international money into the country because it would be “a good signal to investors about the predictability of our institutions.”

Still, a resolution may not be at hand. “If this was easy, it would have been solved,” he said.