Thursday, April 03, 2008

Macedonia row overshadows NATO summit

The Nato summit in Bucharest is being overshadowed by what American officials have reportedly called "the world's stupidest major issue".

The vitriolic dispute between Greece and its northern neighbour over claims to the name Macedonia threaten to derail plans to extend Nato membership in the Balkans - one of the major aims of the summit.

Macedonia row overshadows NATO summit
A billboard for an art exhibition in FYROM depicting the Greek flag with a swastika in place of its white cross

The name is used both by a northern Greek province as well as the country formally known as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), but which calls itself the Republic of Macedonia.

Bitter arguments about the issue have been going on for years, but have been further poisoned by billboards in FYROM featuring the Greek flag with a swastika in place of its white cross.

The poster campaign, which was part of a private publicity campaign for an art exhibition, has been greeted with outrage in Athens, whose ambassador to Washington promptly wrote a letter of complaint to US President George W Bush.

President Bush is one of the biggest backers of Nato expansion in the Balkans, and FYROM - where the US is building a vast new embassy complex - is a particular ally.

But Greece has repeatedly warned that however trivial the issue may appear to outsiders, it is willing to veto FYROM's candidacy for Nato unless its neighbour backs down over claims to the name Macedonia.

"The name 'Republic of Macedonia is not a phantom fear for us Greeks," wrote Greek foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis. "It is linked with a deliberate plan to take over a part of Greek territory."

The government in FYROM's capital Skopje, which has condemned the swastika posters in the city, has repeatedly denied that it has territorial ambitions in northern Greece.

It is thought to be willing to compromise by considering the name "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" which has been put forward as a compromise by the United Nations.

Greece however, is determined that FYROM should been known as "Upper" or "Northern" Macedonia. "We are prepared to accept a compound name," noted Ms Bakoyannis.

The details are proving infuriating for Mr Bush. US officials have reportedly called the name dispute "stupid" and the US state department has suggested that FYROM could join Nato without an agreement with Greece.

"We believe the decisions that are taken on Nato membership ought to be based on whether the countries meet the qualifications and criteria that Nato has established for them," said spokesman Tom Casey.

But that has prompted renewed outrage in Athens, where relations with America are often tinged with suspicion.

"Trickery and pressure from Washington over FYROM," noted Kathermerini, one of its main papers while another, Avriani, headlined that with no Greek compromise "the Americans threaten to topple [Greek Prime Minister Costas] Karamanlis".

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