May 20, 2019

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How a Name Change Opened the Door to NATO for Macedonia

How a Name Change Opened the Door to NATO for Macedonia
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Macedonia’s path toward NATO is also a setback for Russia, which has tried to reassert itself, especially in the Balkans, after having lost influence in Eastern and Central Europe over decades. Western officials accused Russia of interference in the name-change process, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, during a visit to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, voicing concerns that groups financed by Russia were trying to undermine the deal.

The name hasn’t always been a major point of contention with Greece. While the dispute dates back at least to the first Balkan wars of the 1910s, it receded for most of the 20th century, when Macedonia was part of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia. Since it was an entity of another country, Greece made few objections to its use of the name at the time.

The difficulties flared when Yugoslavia disintegrated and Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, as well as its intention to join international organizations that included Greece.

Macedonia entered the United Nations in 1993 under a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom. While the name made the country’s provenance clear, it did not entirely resolve the issue, since Macedonia did not refer to itself internally as Fyrom. Greece accused it of appropriating Greek symbols and cultural identifiers, such as the Vergina Star — a similar image appears on the current Macedonian flag.

NATO made an overture to Macedonia in 2008, but Greece blocked the move. “It was a crushing defeat,” Mr. Pendarovski said. “Polls at the time suggested that about 85 percent of the population wanted to join, an extraordinary consensus.”

The prime minister at the time, Nikola Gruevski, from the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, used the disappointment over the name issue as a means to shore up right-wing populist support. In the years that followed, reforms stagnated in Macedonia, a country of about two million people that is one of Europe’s poorest.

Mr. Gruevski’s government launched a massive infrastructure project, known as Skopje 2014, filling the capital with monuments to heroes such as Alexander the Great, meant to pacify those who felt they were being bullied out of their identity by Greece.

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