Friday, March 07, 2008

Greek name fury threatens NATO bid

NATO's secretary-general said Monday that Macedonia's hope of joining the military alliance could be dashed if it fails to settle a 17-year-old name spat with Greece, a long-time NATO member.

The former Yugoslav republic hopes to win NATO's endorsement to join the 26-member alliance at a summit in Bucharest, Romania, next month. But Greece has threatened to veto those plans if its northern neighbor does not change its self-given name and agree to a new one.

The country is officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia but is commonly referred to as Macedonia -- which is already the name of a historically important region of Greece.

"We have to realize that Greece is a staunch ally," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after talks with Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis in Athens. "Aspiring nations are not members and that is a basic difference."

Scheffer, who met earlier with Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, said there is "no certainty that invitations will be issued" to FYR Macedonia, Croatia and Albania during a key meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels next week.

"Invitations," he said, "will be issued only on the basis of (the) performance of aspiring members." He refused to elaborate and it remained unclear whether the NATO chief might put Macedonia's application on hold until relations with its Greek neighbor have healed.

Squeezed between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Kosovo, Macedonia secured independence from the Yugoslavia without bloodshed.

Now, years after offering its support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and after signing a string of treaties that exempt U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, it expects to win NATO's go-ahead to join the security organization.

What's more, say officials in the capital of Skopje, Kosovo's declaration of independence and fears of fresh unrest in the region have given urgency to Macedonia's bid to come under NATO's security umbrella.

Athens has long argued that the name Macedonia implies territorial claims on its northern province of the same name -- the birthplace, also, of Greece's most revered ancient warrior, Alexander the Great.

In recent weeks, a special United Nations negotiator has proposed five alternative names for Macedonia to consider, but negotiations in New York over the weekend failed to yield any signs of a breakthrough in the dispute that has festered between Greece and Macedonia for 17 years.

Nearly 90 percent of Greeks favor a veto on Macedonia's membership bid if no compromise solution is found, according to a weekend opinion polls published in the Athens daily Kathimerini.

"The door to NATO is open to any aspiring member," Scheffer said. "But to go through it, though, there are preconditions, and entry is not an automatic process."

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