Greece and its tiny neighbor to the north have finally settled their long-running argument over what to call the piece of earth known for the past quarter-century as “Macedonia” in some capitals and “FYROM” (based on “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”) in others. Their compromise is “Republic of North Macedonia.” This diplomatic breakthrough is good news for the United States, NATO, the Balkans, and the rest of Europe.
Before discussing how FYROM’s new name will affect US foreign policy and national security, it’s important to note that stumbling blocks remain. As the BBC reports, the new name still has to be approved by the Macedonian and Greek political systems.
This is not a mere formality.
Macedonia’s president opposes the compromise deal, which was struck between the Macedonian and Greek prime ministers.
As for Greek reaction, when reports emerged earlier this year that the two sides were making progress on the name dispute (which began in 1991, after Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia), angry protests erupted in Greece. Incredibly, many Greek citizens worry that the use of “Macedonia” by the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia somehow suggests a claim by the government in Skopje on a Greek region also called Macedonia.
“Who is right?” asks Greek journalist Thimios Tzallas. “The rest of the planet is right, not Greece.” Noting that “no one in Greece seriously believes the story about Macedonia’s irredentist aspirations,” he wonders, “how on earth could one of the poorest countries in Europe…a country which ardently wishes to join NATO, pose a threat to a country five times as large and as powerful?”
Hopefully, the parliaments in Athens and Skopje will be able to overcome the political obstacles.
What exactly does this have to do with US interests and national security? More than you might think.
It’s a matter of national security for two reasons. First, it directly affects NATO, which is a vital bridge between America and Europe, a foundation stone in the liberal international order that the US helped build after World War II, and a critical element in America’s ability to project power.
Because of the name dispute, Macedonia has been languishing at NATO’s doorstep for a decade. When NATO member Greece blocked NATO aspirant Macedonia’s entry into the alliance in 2008 because of the name issue, the alliance declared that membership “will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached.”
To his credit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement immediately after the deal was struck, promising “this will set Skopje on its path to NATO membership.”
Stoltenberg knows that having Macedonia as part of NATO will further stabilize the security environment of Southeastern Europe, promote Macedonia’s integration with the rest of Europe, and stymie Russia’s efforts to reclaim a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
That brings us to the second reason Macedonia’s name limbo has been a national security problem for the United States. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has used the stalemate to prevent NATO expansion and extend his reach in the Balkans. In dealing with Putin, we must always keep in mind that he sees the world in zero-sum terms—in other words, any success for NATO and the US, according to Putin, is a setback for Russia.
As Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden and a longtime envoy to the Balkans, explains, there are “forces in Russia eager to stir the pots of nationalist passions in the Balkans so as to derail any further extension of either the EU or NATO in the region.”
The Guardian reports that Macedonian intelligence agencies have monitored “Russian spies and diplomats…involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia.” The Macedonian government has sounded the alarm over “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity…to isolate the country from the influence of the West.”
Moscow’s goal: to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO and then flip Skopje and other Balkan capitals to Russia’s side in what increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0.
Some in Washington seem awake to the challenge in Moscow and the opportunity in Macedonia. Last August in Montenegro during a gathering of the Adriatic Charter—an association of Balkan nations and the US—Vice President Mike Pence explained that “in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.”
Pence, Stoltenberg, and other leaders in the transatlantic community recognize that stability in the Balkans—best secured by bringing Macedonia and other remnants of Yugoslavia into NATO and the EU—will promote peace, strengthen liberal democracy, and encourage economic cooperation across Europe. Instability and uncertainty, on the other hand, will lead to division and discord, which Putin will use to his advantage.
Skopje has done more than enough to prove its commitment to NATO and the West—changing the nation’s name and the name of its main airport and several roadways; undertaking political, economic, and military reforms required for NATO membership; allowing hundreds of US forces to deploy throughout its territory to support peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and other Balkan danger zones; and making real contributions to NATO and the EU. With just 2 million citizens, the country has sent thousands of troops over the past 15 years to support NATO in Afghanistan and the EU in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Republic of North Macedonia should become NATO’s thirtieth member—if possible, during next month’s NATO summit in Brussels.
Scripture tells us, “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” Regardless of whether that truth applies to nation-states, Macedonia’s new name is good enough—good enough to let Athens save face, good enough to allow Skopje to move forward as a sovereign and independent European nation, good enough to bring another piece of the once-troubled Balkans into the NATO fold. Read more at the Landing Zone.
Photo Credit: Samoil’s Fortress in Ohrid, Republic of North Macedonia. By Diego Delso, via Wikimedia Commons.