This week, the most powerful military alliance the world has ever known will meet at a time of growing global threats to international peace and security. But at the Nato summit in Bucharest, issues of Kosovo's independence, tensions in the Middle East, growing divisions with Russia, prospects of resolution of the Cyprus conflict, and membership prospects for Ukraine and Georgia, may have to take a backseat as ministers and generals debate the most weighty issue of all: what the Macedonians can call themselves.
At the summit, the Alliance was expected to extend membership invitations to Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, but Greece is blocking Skopje's bid due to the name issue. Athens' extreme diplomatic inhospitality towards its newest neighbour is rooted in the national indignation that another country should give itself the name of one of its own provinces, especially the one associated with Alexander the Great and Phillip of Macedonia, and fears that Skopje's use of the name implies a claim to the Greek northern province. Greece has already forced on the Macedonians the appalling moniker, "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", or FYROM, in all international forums. As if Athens would ever accept to be called the "Former Ottoman Province of Greece".
To break the impasse before the summit, various compromises have been suggested, nearly all of which are as deeply insulting to Macedonians as FYROM. In the last few weeks, we've seen "New Macedonia" or "Upper Macedonia". The Macedonians have reportedly now agreed to add the geographic tagline: "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" to meet a previous Greek demand, but even that is not apparently enough for the Greeks today. Talks have moved from the UN to Washington in hopes of a solution before a train wreck this week.
The notion that two geographic locations cannot share the same name would strike many as bizarre. Few would mistake Paris, France, for its counterpart in Texas, or Toledo, Spain, for its counterpart in Ohio. The residents of the Belgian province of Luxembourg have never been threatened by the country of the same name, nor by the Luxembourg Palace in the aforementioned Paris - France, that is. There are so many Springfields in the US that it has become an inside joke on The Simpsons.
Unfortunately, Greek intransigence on the Macedonian name issue is not just an amusing or annoying nationalist throwback. It has real and damaging consequences, not least for Balkan - including Greek - security and stability. Macedonia's membership in Nato would stabilise the region and Greece's relations with its neighbours in the same way that Turkey's membership has. It would facilitate an open dialogue on all issues. A stable, secure and prosperous Macedonia, whatever its people choose to call themselves, will only be good for Greece.
Contrast those strategic interests with the apparent threat that Greece seems to fear. Does Athens really think that the country of Macedonia, with some two million relatively poor people, wants to take over a region in Greece which is far richer and five times more populous? Do they believe that Skopje is pushing the territorial claims of Alexander and seeking an empire stretching not just to Thessaloniki, but all the way to Afghanistan and Egypt?
There are real and practical solutions here. Nearly seven years ago, the International Crisis Group suggested a compromise under which the UN, Nato, the European Union and other international organisations would use the Macedonian-language "Republika Makedonija". This would come in the context of a bilateral treaty between Skopje and Athens in which Macedonia would commit to fair treatment of the Greek cultural heritage in the Macedonian educational curriculum, agree that Greece could use its own name for the state of Macedonia, and commit to strict protection against any Macedonian exploitation of its constitutional name to disadvantage Greece commercially or legally. Alternatively, a solution that includes a geographic qualifier is still a workable option. Both should be considered.
Athens has long-standing and legitimate concerns on key issues being considered in the context of Nato, as well as the European Union, including the futures of Cyprus and Kosovo. These are serious issues involving serious debates. By sticking to a hardline - and, some would say, frivolous - position on the Macedonian name issue, it is risking its credibility on these questions. More importantly, it is risking adding another element of instability in a region that has already seen far too much tragedy in the recent past. Greece should know better: its friends and allies from around the world - including from Athens, Georgia - should tell them this in no uncertain terms.