The name game

Greece and its tiny neighbor to the north – known as “Macedonia” to most of the world and “Fyrom” in certain capitals – have restarted negotiations aimed at resolving a decades-old dispute over the official name of Macedonia. Yet reports that the two sides are making progress on the name dispute (which began in 1991, when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia) have triggered angry protests in Greece. It seems some Greek citizens worry that use of “Macedonia” by the former Yugoslav republic known as Macedonia (hence the acronym “Fyrom”) somehow suggests a claim by the government in Skopje on a Greek region also called Macedonia. It’s in America’s interest for this lingering name dispute to be settled – and soon.

U.N. Special Representative Matthew Nimetz, who is an American diplomat but also an envoy for the U.N. Secretary General, says the issue “can and should be resolved” this year. After more than three years without discussions on the impasse, the two sides met late last year and have continued talks into 2018, leading Nimetz to report, “The atmosphere is a much better one, and from both Skopje and Athens there is an indication that we should make an intensive effort to resolve this issue that has been outstanding for so many years.”

“Who is right?” asks Thimios Tzallas, a Greek journalist based in London. “The rest of the planet is right, not Greece.” Pointing out that no one in Greece "seriously believes the story about Macedonia's irredentist aspirations,” he wonders, “(h)ow on earth could one of the poorest countries in Europe ... a country which ardently wishes to join NATO, pose a threat to a country five times as large and as powerful?”

Still, this silly argument over a name persists. But what exactly does it have to do with U.S. interests and U.S. national security? More than you might think at first glance.

It’s a national security problem for two reasons. First, it directly affects NATO, which is a vital bridge between America and Europe, a foundation stone in the liberal international order America helped build after World War II, and a critical element in America’s ability to project power.

Because of the name dispute, Macedonia has been languishing in NATO’s waiting room for a decade. When NATO-member Greece blocked NATO-aspirant Macedonia’s entry into the alliance in 2008 because of the name issue, NATO declared that membership “will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached.”

During his visit last month to Macedonia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the name dispute “has weighed on this region – and this country – for far too long.” Noting that NATO’s members “have been impressed by your determination and enthusiasm to join the alliance,” he reassured the Macedonian parliament that there is "still room for more flags in front of the NATO Headquarters.”

Stoltenberg knows that having Macedonia as part of NATO will further stabilize the security environment of Southeastern Europe, promote Macedonia’s integration with the rest of Europe and stymie Russia’s efforts to reclaim a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

That brings us to the second reason Macedonia’s name limbo is a national security problem for the United States: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is using the stalemate to try to prevent NATO expansion and to extend his reach in the Balkans. In dealing with Putin, we must always keep in mind that he sees the world in zero-sum terms – in other words, any success for NATO and the United States, according to Putin, is a setback for Russia. Thus, as Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden and a longtime envoy to the former Yugoslavia, explains, “There are ... forces in Russia eager to stir the pots of nationalist passions in the Balkans so as to derail any further extension of either the EU or NATO in the region.”

Washington seems awake to the challenge in Moscow and the opportunity in Macedonia.

Last August, during a gathering in Montenegro of the Adriatic Charter – an association of Balkan nations and the United States – Vice President Mike Pence, explained that “in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.” He bluntly described how “Moscow-backed agents sought to disrupt Montenegro’s elections, attack your parliament and even attempt to assassinate your Prime Minister to dissuade the Montenegrin people from entering our NATO alliance.”

Regrettably, it appears Moscow is following the same playbook in Macedonia. As The Guardian reports, Macedonian intelligence agencies have monitored “Russian spies and diplomats ... involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia.” The Macedonian government has sounded the alarm over “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity…to isolate the country from the influence of the West.”

Moscow’s goal: to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO, and then to flip Skopje and other Balkan capitals to Russia’s side in what increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0.

Pence, Stoltenberg and other leaders in the transatlantic community recognize that stability in the Balkans – best secured by bringing Macedonia and other remnants of Yugoslavia into NATO and the EU – will promote peace, strengthen liberal democracy and encourage economic cooperation across Europe. Instability and uncertainty, on the other hand, will lead to division and discord, which Putin will use to his advantage.

Making room For now, Macedonia is known as “Fyrom” at the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Given that Greece, Turkey, the United States and other NATO members choose to recognize Macedonia in various ways, NATO uses an asterisk in its designation of what could be – and should be – its 30th member. (Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member last June.) The United States recognizes the country by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

Suggestions for a compromise name include “Upper Republic of Macedonia,” “Upper Macedonia,” “North Macedonia” and “New Macedonia.”

Whether it joins the NATO alliance as Upper Macedonia, Republic of Skopje or Big Mac, the country with no name has done more than enough to accommodate Athens and to show its commitment to NATO.

In response to Greek sensitivities, Macedonia’s new government has changed the name of its main airport and several roadways. In a sign of compromise and goodwill, the government in Skopje recently said it was open to using a different name in international bodies.

Moreover, Skopje has undertaken a number of political, economic and military reforms required for NATO membership. Macedonia allowed hundreds of U.S. forces to deploy to and through its territory to support operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And the Macedonian people have made real contributions to NATO and the EU: With just 2 million citizens, Macedonia has sent thousands of troops over the past 15 years to support NATO in Afghanistan and the European Union in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as smaller contingents to UN missions in Liberia and Lebanon.

If Great Britain can live with New Jersey and New York; if Poland can tolerate the fact that there’s a Warsaw, Ind.; if the world is big enough for a Lima, Ohio, and a Lima, Peru, then Greece can make room for Macedonia inside NATO.