Macedonia Fights for Its Name

There could be fireworks at next week's NATO summit in Bucharest—but not of the celebratory kind. On the agenda are discussions of whether Macedonia has met the criteria for membership. Macedonia's hope for inclusion could be dashed by Greece because of a dispute over Macedonia's name, which it shares with a northern Greek province. Ever since Macedonia broke from Yugoslavia and became an independent nation 17 years ago, Greece has worried that Macedonia has territorial ambitions for the province. A special envoy from the United Nations has been trying to find a compromise between the neighboring nations. A proposal was tabled yesterday for the two nations to consider. Officials aren't revealing the proposed new name for the country, but the Greek press is reporting that it may be the Republic of Macedonia-Skopje. Speaking by phone from the capital, Skopje, Macedonian foreign minister Antonio Milososki spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell about the NATO summit, the name issue and Kosovo. Excerpts:

For Greeks and Macedonians this question over your country's name is explosive. Why?
Antonio Milososki: I think it is the first time that a big country like Greece is pressing its smaller neighbor to give up its right to its constitutional national name. Why? Well that is not easy to answer. The Greek side is claiming they have the name Macedonia as a province name in northern Greece. They renamed this province in 1988, and the Republic of Macedonia existed in [what was then] Yugoslavia, and no one disputed our name whatsoever. But I think it is not about the name but about the Macedonian minority living in Greece. Greece is one of the rare countries of the EU that does not recognize the phrase "minority rights." They still have a concept of a pure nation—one state, one nation, one religion, one culture, everything Greek. And they do not want to recognize that in Greece there is a big Turkish minority, a big Albanian minority and one small Macedonian minority. So the name issue started in 1991 because they were afraid independent Macedonia would somehow influence this minority rights issue in Greece. Therefore they insisted that Macedonia change its name. It is very undemocratic and very un-European. For example, you have a Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as a state and a three-times bigger province in neighboring Belgium with the same name, yet no one makes a dispute out of it.

During talks over the last few weeks, ideas for new names have included the Republic of Upper Macedonia and the New Republic of Macedonia. Couldn't you accept a settlement on paper, still call yourselves Macedonians in the vernacular, and not jeopardize NATO membership?
Imagine that Canada or Mexico started a dispute with the United States, saying, "You are not America only. We are Americans as well, and you should change your name to Middle America." We are not willing tomorrow for Macedonians to be called Upper Macedonians and have instead of the Macedonian language a New Macedonian language. We are prepared for a compromise and we are part of these bilateral talks. In 1996 we amended our constitution and stated clearly that Macedonia has no and will not have any territorial claims against Greece. Who could imagine that we could, with our 8,000 soldiers, [take on] the Greek military, with 240,000 of the best-equipped soldiers in the region? To imagine that Macedonia has territorial aspirations against Greece is like imagining that Estonia has territorial aspirations against Russia. It is strange in the 21st century to press one small nation to give up its national name.

Do you think that Greece will veto your membership in NATO over this?
We still hope the Greek [prime minister] will not miss the bigger Balkan picture just because he is looking at one domestically important political dispute. Objecting to Macedonian membership for NATO means vetoing NATO strategic plans for southeastern Europe. Every party should stay committed to agreements we have already reached. Macedonia and Greece in September 1995 agreed on an interim accord [that stated] that no party shall block the membership of the other in international organizations. So this modus vivendi functioned when we became a member of the U.N. and the [World Trade Organization]. So why not, when all these security consolidation issues are at stake in the Balkans, be pragmatic?

In terms of the geopolitics of the Balkans, how important is it for Macedonia to become a member of NATO?
It is of great importance to us. According to the latest poll by a U.S. polling firm, 89 percent of Macedonians are in favor of NATO. There are three things that NATO means for us. First, it means improved security. Second, it means making a step ahead toward the club of stable, established democracies. And third, NATO means an added value to the investment climate. Who can forget the Balkans of yesterday? I would not exaggerate or underestimate the potential challenges with Kosovo and political turbulence in Belgrade. But the more Balkan nations—like Albania, Croatia and Macedonia—are in NATO, the less NATO will be in the Balkans. For Macedonia membership is the proof that we have passed the test for our statehood. Seven years ago we were a country consumer of security assistance while today we are proud of being a country that can be a security provider.

Why has Macedonia not yet recognized Kosovo?
Macedonia is the only country that is symbolically on the front line. We are neighbors of Belgrade and of Pristina, and both Kosovo and Serbia will remain our neighbors for centuries, so therefore we are careful. We have a job to finish with our Kosovo friends over technical relevance, that of the demarcation of the Macedonian-Kosovo border. Every single productive step in this direction will increase our motivation to consider the issue [of recognition]. This issue will [also] be a good chance for Kosovo, while they are now struggling to prove their credibility, to show they are capable to undertake and finish internationally undertaken obligations. The demarcation of borders was a part of the Ahtisaari plan, which they have accepted as the essence of their independence. So those two issues are influencing Macedonia's stand.

I was at a discussion last night about Kosovo, and one of the Balkan experts on the panel said he was still worried about the stability of Macedonia. How do you ease people's minds about ethnic issues in your country?
Macedonia has succeeded over the last 16 years to build a state architecture of equal opportunities. Every single citizen can be engaged in politics, in culture, the economy, in education, in media, and there are schools for everyone in their mother tongue, news for everyone in their mother tongue, politics for everyone in their mother tongue—sometimes too much. [Laughs] I think we have a common ground, a minimum common denominator that creates a feeling among the 2 million that they do belong; they have their rights in this society—regardless of being Macedonian, Albanian, Roma, whatever. We deserve the label of success story of the Balkans and could serve as an example. Our future depends on this cohesion inside Macedonia, and we are satisfied with the level of interethnic cohesion.

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