March 26, 2008
The 17-year-long dispute between Macedonia and Greece, in which Greece has challenged its new sovereign neighbor over its name, has intensified seven days before the next NATO summit. Macedonia will be invited into the alliance if Greece will not veto the decision. What makes this dispute really damaging is that one party involved is an EU and NATO member state, and the other is a country in a war-torn region of Europe that has a very strong determination to play according to the EU and NATO Western Balkans strategic plans.
NATO membership, which forms a military and political alliance between most European countries and the US, has been the first step towards a deeper political integration and EU membership in all Central European countries. (This step was not needed in the case of Malta and Cyprus, which countries have become independent from Britain only a few decades ago). Macedonia was the only major part of the former Yugoslavia, where an early and preemptive NATO presence has stopped civil warfare in the 1990s. Macedonia’s integration into the European economic, political and military structures would be an important step to stabilize the European Union.
The diplomatic row over the name of the country looks childish to most readers. Greece prevented Macedonia to enter into the UN under this name when it became independent. It’s UN seat has a name tag with ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ although the majority of the United Nations members have recognized it under the name Republic of Macedonia. The are alleged or hidden sovereignity claims over each others territory or population. Macedonia and Greece were both part of the Ottoman Empire, which was not a nation sate and ethnicity did not play a modern role in the making of the polity. The historical region of Macedonia was divided after the Balkan Wars between three forming nation states, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece only 95 years ago. Macedonia eventually became a member state within the Yugoslav federation and started nation building in the second half of the 20th century. This means that (at least) four sovereign states claim to inherit historical Macedonia. The Republic of Macedonia is in an early phase of nation-building with mixed population, who have Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian or other identity. The Greek intervention about the core elements of national identification, name and national symbols, may destabilize a state which is barely the size of Slovenia.
The conflict is reminiscent to the Cyprus and Kosovo conflicts in many ways, and so should be the solution. All players coming from a multi-ethnic premodern Ottoman Empire there are many common elements in the story. Greece successfully put pressure on the 2004 to include Cyprus which does not have a control over its internationally recognized territory, thus importing an ethnic and territorial dispute into the European Union. The current diplomacy around the first round of Western Balkans NATO accession is very similar.
The European Union was established to maintain peace and prosperity in Europe. Now, if you were not persuaded that this conflict has a long-term, strategic importance for the European Union, guess, who is mediating between the two European countries?
Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki sent the letters to his counterparts in 25 NATO countries, except Greece, on Wednesday, the Associated press agency reported. I am confident that you and your country will not allow an imposed bilateral issue to become an additional criteria and a precondition for Macedonia’s membership of NATO” Milososki wrote. ATO officials say the fact Macedonia’s appeal ignored Athens was ‘immature.’
“It was not wise to bypass an ally,” warned the NATO official. “However, the name dispute should remain a bilateral issue and should be resolved under auspices of the United Nations.”