The Cable

What’s in a name? For Macedonia, everything.

When NATO countries meet for their summit in Chicago this May, four countries will be vying for membership in the transatlantic alliance. For the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the only thing holding it back is its name. Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible for NATO membership. Georgia, ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

When NATO countries meet for their summit in Chicago this May, four countries will be vying for membership in the transatlantic alliance. For the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the only thing holding it back is its name.

Bosnia still has some constitutional reforms to enact before it can be eligible for NATO membership. Georgia, recent named an "aspirant" NATO member, has its bid tied up by the Russian occupation of two of its territories. Montenegro has been granted its NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership, and is moving towards accession at a steady pace. But for Macedonia, which was granted MAP status way back in 1999, there likely won’t be any formal membership invitation in Chicago because NATO member Greece is still demanding that the  Republic of Macedonia change its name.

 "Macedonia’s bid was blocked by Greece because of a 17-year row over the country’s name," the BBC reported at the time of NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest. "Athens says it implies a territorial claim on its northern province — also called Macedonia — and wants the former Yugoslav republic to change its name to New or Upper Macedonia."

Now, four years later, the dispute is no closer to being solved. Tuesday, 54 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to break the logjam.

"We strongly urge your administration to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well deserved formal invitation to join the alliance during the Chicago summit," reads the letter, led by Reps. Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike Turner (R-OH).

The letter points out that Macedonia has achieved all membership criteria to merit a NATO membership invitation and quotes Obama as saying in April 2009: "I look forward to the day when we can welcome Macedonia into the alliance."

Macedonia was the staging area for NATO operations in Kosovo in 1990, offered refuge to 360,000 Kosovars, and has fought alongside NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the letter states. "If Macedonia can protect the tent of NATO, Macedonia should be able to sleep in the tent of NATO," it reads.

Congressional support for Macedoniaa’s accession is also codified two bills in Congress. The Senate’s version of the NATO Enhancement Act of 2012 was introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) and the House version was introduced by Turner.

But the dispute over the name of the country is still standing in the way.

Vice President Joseph Biden met with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in Washington in February 2011, after which the White House said in a statement, "The Vice President expressed the hope that Macedonia and Greece resolve together the longstanding ‘name issue’ so that Macedonia can move forward on seeking NATO membership and fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic aspirations."

Last December, advocates of Macedonia’s NATO accession thought they had found the solution, when the International Court of Justice ruled by a 15-1 vote that Greece had breached its international obligations by objecting to NATO membership for the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," a name the Macedonians believe is a reasonable compromise.

But for the Obama administration, that ruling hasn’t changed the state of the dispute. Asked for comment by The Cable, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor referred to the following statement issued at the 2008 Bucharest summit:

We recognise the hard work and the commitment demonstrated by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO values and Alliance operations. We commend them for their efforts to build a multi-ethnic society. Within the framework of the UN, many actors have worked hard to resolve the name issue, but the Alliance has noted with regret that these talks have not produced a successful outcome. Therefore we agreed that an invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached. We encourage the negotiations to be resumed without delay and expect them to be concluded as soon as possible.

"Allies remain committed to this position," Vietor said.

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