Macedonia Name Dispute May Threaten NATO Enlargement

The disintegration of Yugoslavia, which began back in 1991, has so far produced seven successor states. The last one was Kosovo, which declared independence on Feb. 17.

Back in 2003, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was renamed into a State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (three years later, Montenegro went its separate way by holding a referendum on independence) the name Yugoslavia was erased from the map. Yugoslavia was effectively no more.

Actually, this is not entirely accurate. One of the successors to Tito's socialist federation—Macedonia—still keeps the memory of Yugoslavia alive.

In 1993, due to Greek opposition to the use of the name Macedonia for the new Balkan republic, the United Nations accepted the new state into membership under a temporary name, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, (pronounced FIE-rum).

Fifteen years later, with the rest of Yugoslavia long forgotten, Macedonia is the last of its offspring to hold any reference to what once was. It is still a Yugoslav republic. It is the last of the Yugoslavs.

But it may not be for long.

The long -simmering name dispute between Greece and Macedonia has recently entered what seems to be a possible final phase.

In the early 1990's, the name dispute delayed Macedonia's entry into the United Nations. In 1994, Greece installed a complete embargo against its small northern neighbor, which lasted for 18 months and severely hurt the fragile economy of the fledgling state.

After having reached an agreement, with United Nations mediation, in late 1995, Greece lifted the embargo and the dispute decreased in intensity over the ensuing years. That is, until recently, when it exploded again.

Macedonia is expected to get an invitation to join NATO, together with two other countries from the Adriatic group, Albania and Croatia, at a forthcoming summit of the Alliance, in Bucharest in April.

Greece adamantly stated it would veto Macedonia's entry unless the name dispute was resolved first. This angers the United States, which has just led the way for recognition of Kosovo, and wants the NATO veil of security over the region, in case of possible turbulence ahead.

The dispute does not make Greece any friends in the European Union either. To most countries, which do not understand the obsession with history in the Balkans, the dispute over a name—one of a kind in international relations among states—is irrational. The European Parliament just passed a resolution calling upon Greece not to block Macedonia's international integration, as long it does it as FYROM.

The United States ambassador to Macedonia recently suggested to both countries that they "grow up."

Yet in both Greece and Macedonia, the name issue these days is (again) perceived as a matter of life or death.

Greece has always claimed that "Macedonia" is an exclusive part of its historic and cultural heritage, and that by using the name, Skopje is stealing its history and perhaps even displaying territorial pretensions.

Macedonia has always claimed that its ethnic Macedonian population has no other identity except the "Macedonian" one and subsequently no other name.

The last escalation, which actually began with the decision of the government in Athens to use its position as a NATO member to put an end to the name dispute, has in recent weeks set off a wave of nationalist hysteria in both Greece and Macedonia.

Recent protest for preservation of the name in the center of Macedonia's capital, Skopje, ended with an unsuccessful attempt by a group of nationalist thugs to attack the Greek Liaison Office. Luckily, the police were in place to prevent it.

Macedonian media reported a spat between Greek and Macedonian soldiers in Afghanistan. Reportedly, a Macedonian cook prepared a traditional "local" dish—a musaka (a baked dish with meat and various vegetables) and called it "Macedonian musaka." Greek soldiers refused to eat it, saying the musaka was a "traditional Greek dish," and protested to their superiors.

Whereas both countries are ready for some concessions, they do not go far enough and compromise seems elusive, even under strong American pressure to find a solution.

In principle, there is no reason why Macedonia could not enter NATO the same way it entered the United Nations and other international organizations, as a former Yugoslav republic, except that Greece will not allow it. The government in Athens hopes the time is right to apply pressure, from its position as a NATO member, and have the thing resolved favorably once and for all.

Greece says Macedonia threatens regional stability by refusing to compromise (that is, by refusing to do what Greece wants it to do). Macedonia says Greece is a security risk because it goes against NATO interests in the region.

Macedonia also insists the issue is essentially a bilateral one of no wider international importance. Greece claims otherwise. It says Macedonia cannot join NATO or the European Union before a solution to the name dispute has been found.

Over the past 16 years, some 120 countries—of which three are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Russia, China, and the United States)—have recognized Macedonia by its real name.

Elsewhere this may seem strange, but in the Balkans, identity, even that of baked dishes, is taken very seriously.

The same coffee that is called "Bosniak" in Bosnia is called "Serbian" in Serbia, and so on. But nobody calls it what it really is—"Turkish" coffee. The Turks, who owned everything in the Balkans for a few centuries, do not seem to have a problem with this.

Italians beware! Who gave you the right to call your fruit salad Macedonia?

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Risto Karajkov.