On the heels of Kosovo's declaration of independence, a deepening dispute in neighboring Macedonia threatens to further rattle the fragile Balkans.
The former Yugoslav state is expecting an invitation to join NATO at a summit in April, and Macedonian officials say the country needs membership in the security organization, and later the European Union, to maintain stability. But Greece has threatened to scupper Macedonia's membership bid if it does not change its name, which Greece says implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of Macedonia.
Macedonia has largely been calm since a 2001 uprising by its large Albanian community against state security forces. After several months of fighting, a fragile peace was brokered. But the delicate security situation could deteriorate, experts in Skopje have warned, if Greece vetos the former Yugoslav state's bid to join international organizations.
Greece has insisted that Macedonia is properly known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in such organizations. But more than two-thirds of UN member states, including the United States, have recognized Macedonia under its constitutional name – the Republic of Macedonia.
"Any state that applies for membership is given the criteria and should not be given additional criteria by any other country," says Emil Kirjas, Macedonia's former foreign minister. "Greece is acting illegally to put this extra condition on Macedonia to join NATO or the EU."
He adds that if Greece decides to veto Macedonia's accession, the country would face "a certain security threat."
"If Macedonia joins NATO, it means that the question of the existence of the state and its territorial integrity has been put to rest," he says.
Although the name dispute is often seen as a petty bilateral spat, it may have serious security implications for the Balkans. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Macedonian and Greek officials to fully participate in the UN-led negotiation process.
Some officials warn the dispute could intensify simmering tensions. "Macedonia has the explosive potential of Bosnia," says Aleksander Matovski, a former Macedonian national security adviser. "Kosovo's independence has polarized the country, with the Macedonian majority very anxious about it and the Albanians highly enthusiastic. This is the most critical moment to extend the umbrella of NATO into the Balkans.
"NATO membership is an existential issue for Macedonia," he adds. "The only way to live with the unmanageable security situation is to become part of a larger alliance."
Michael Nimetz, the UN mediator leading talks on the dispute, presented five compromise name proposals in Athens on Tuesday. He told journalists Tuesday that the proposals, which he did not reveal, offered "a fair and dignified solution" that "meets the aspirations of both countries."
But, he said, the suggested names present difficulties for both sides. "It would be a tremendous success for the region and for the two countries to resolve the issue," he said.
On Tuesday evening, about 2,000 people gathered to demonstrate in Skopje to protest against any change to the name. Some of the demonstrators threw stones at the Greek diplomatic office and held signs that read: "We are Macedonians, nothing else."