WASHINGTON - After repeated assurances from high-level U.N. and Macedonian officials that Skopje is poised to resolve its long-running name dispute with neighboring Greece, the Balkan nation's defense chief says that issue may well be the only thing impeding its pending NATO accession.
Following Pentagon meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Macedonian Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska told VOA that Skopje has satisfied all NATO membership criteria, and that Greece’s blessing will now prove vital to securing accession at an upcoming alliance summit.
Macedonia and Greece have been at odds for a quarter-century over the name Macedonia, but have pledged to resolve the dispute by the summer. Greece argues the country's name harbors territorial claims on its own northern province of Macedonia.
Last week, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he was “convinced” the name dispute could be resolved, but that any required constitutional changes would have to be decided by referendum.
Matthew Nimetz, the U.N. envoy on the matter, expressed optimism about prospects for a deal between Skopje and Athens after talks in Vienna concluded on April 25.
Asked whether the dispute could be resolved ahead of the mid-July NATO summit, where Macedonia could be invited to become the alliance’s 30th member, Sekerinska was cautiously optimistic. She pointed to Skopje’s relatively quick resolution of last year’s domestic political turmoil, when Macedonian nationalists unhappy about the inclusion of ethnic Albanians blocked the formation of a new government, further deepening the worst crisis the nation had seen since narrowly averting an ethnic civil war in 2001.
“Macedonia has recovered very quickly from political crises, and it has improved its reputation as a democratic, NATO-values-based country,” she said. “It has increased its NATO defense spending and contribution to NATO-led missions. So, [NATO membership] criteria are met; the only unknown for the July summit is whether we will reach consensus with Greece on the long-running name dispute. We believe it's very important for both Macedonia and Greece to have NATO's door opened for Macedonia.”
NATO membership would not only enhance stability in the Balkans but also would “increase readiness and leverage of both the U.S. and NATO in the region and in the world,” she added, referring to Western efforts to counter Russian influence and political meddling in the region.
“Macedonia is really seen as a kind of litmus test on what happens when a country performs well,” she added. “Macedonia is a very diverse country, which, though sometimes complicated, we have shown to be an asset. We are a multiethnic, multireligious country that has expanded media freedom, rule of law, and introduced a higher level of accountability and transparency that has been unparalleled around us.”
Country's efforts praised
Mattis had praised Macedonia’s efforts to resolve its decades-old name dispute with Greece, saying he hoped the Balkan country would soon be able to join NATO.
“We commend your work with Greece to resolve this issue and I am hopeful it will bear fruit soon,” Mattis said Tuesday.
“We don’t wish to see you stopped at NATO’s doorstep,” Mattis said before lauding what he described as Skopje’s “resistance to Russia’s malign influence in the Balkans,” saying that he welcomed Skopje’s "continued leadership by example in this region.”
The next NATO summit is slated for July 11 in Brussels, Belgium.
This story originated in VOA's Macedonian service.