One thing about the Balkans, they have the most esoteric crises. NATO is holding its summit meeting next week, and wants to bring in three Balkan states — Albania, Croatia and Macedonia. But Greece, a NATO member since 1952, is threatening to veto Macedonia’s membership over its name.
The name “Macedonia,” is shared by the former Yugoslav republic and northern Greece. Viewed from outside, this seems hardly serious. But in the crowded Balkans, such spats invariably draw on centuries of carefully nurtured slights and myths — in this dispute, both sides have claimed Alexander the Great, the greatest of history’s Macedonians, dead for 2,331 years — and can quickly flare into conflicts.
From the moment Macedonia declared independence in 1991, the Greeks vehemently objected to the new state’s use of a name and symbols they regard as theirs. As a result, the United Nations provisionally designated the country as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or Fyrom. Athens has since normalized relations and many countries, including the United States, have abandoned the clumsy Fyrom in favor of Republic of Macedonia, which is what Macedonia calls itself.
A mediator for the United Nations, Matthew Nimitz, has proposed a bunch of what strike us as totally acceptable compromises, most recently Republic of Macedonia (Skopje). In any case, that’s not the point. NATO membership is supposed to encourage and cement democratic standards in these new European states. The alliance will have to keep working — vigilantly — with the new members to ensure that that happens. But it is too important a project for Greece to block because of a dispute over a name.
Tiny Macedonia poses no threat whatsoever to Greece under any name; on the contrary, its economy is highly dependent on substantial Greek investments. Bringing it into the NATO fold is good for Europe, good for the Balkans, good for Macedonia and good for Greece. The name is something Athens and Skopje can work out on the side.