Russia Tensions: Another European Country Could Join NATO. Will It Anger Moscow?

After decades of disagreement, Greece and its tiny neighbor to the north appear to have finally agreed on what that country should be called.

Athens announced Friday that Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers will gather Sunday to sign the agreement, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in attendance. After that, the country that has been known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 will officially be known as "the Republic of Northern Macedonia."

The disagreement over what to call the small Balkan country of around 2 million inhabitants has until now prevented the country from joining the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), despite having met most of the requirements to do so.

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Now, NATO membership is expected to be high up on Macedonia's agenda. Experts said NATO membership was enticing enough to convince the government in Skopje to sign the name deal, despite widespread opposition at home. Still, the move will likely rile Russia's leadership, which is deeply opposed to Eastern European countries joining NATO.

"I think Zaev is taking a huge gamble because he thinks it will improve their NATO accession chances. Now that the name dispute is resolved, there is no logical reason for them to stay out of NATO," Reuf Bajrovic, a Balkans expert and former minister in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told Newsweek. "Zaev will be remembered as the greatest statesman since [former President Kiro] Gligorov."

Experts indicated that Macedonia could join NATO within the next four years. But first, the agreement on the name will need to be ratified through a referendum and the country's constitution will need to be amended. These steps are expected to take place in the fall.

Meanwhile, Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov has said he will oppose the deal and members of Greece's far right are marching in the streets calling for politicians who support the deal to be lynched or put in front of a firing squad. Other politicians called for a vote of no confidence.

The name dispute centers around which of the two countries lays claim to the legacy of Alexander the Great. Greece says its neighbor should not be permitted to use the name Macedonia because that is the name of the region in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born 25 centuries ago.

Still, experts said it's in NATO's interest for the two countries to resolve their differences so that Macedonia could join the organization's ranks at a time when Russia is spreading its influence around the world.

"Opening the way for the country to join NATO would be a big win for the organization at a crucial time when concerns over Russian influence in the Western Balkans are growing in many capitals," James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics, told Newsweek.

"Indeed, there will certainly be concerns that Moscow may try to scupper the agreement somehow, for example by trying to influence the referendum in Macedonia. Given the growing evidence of Russian involvement in popular votes elsewhere, this is something many Western policymakers will undoubtedly be very worried about," Ker-Lindsay continued.

If it were to join, Macedonia would become NATO's 30th member. Montenegro, another country that was once part of Yugoslavia, joined last year.