NATO representatives will meet in Chicago this month.
By Klaudija Lutovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 14/05/12
Next week's NATO summit in Chicago will be the culmination of years of preparation by a tiny nation that isn't even a member, but has high hopes that the two-day conference will conclude with an invitation to join the exclusive fraternity.
Macedonia has been preparing for this summit since Greece -- its bitter rival to the south --- blocked an all-but-certain invitation to join the organisation in 2008.
Since that disappointment, Macedonia has made every effort to prove to NATO's 28 members that it deserves an invitation, and hopes that nations will apply enough pressure that austerity-worn Greece won't exercise its veto rights May 20th and 21st -- should the issue be called for a vote.
More than 85% of Macedonians want the nation to be a member of NATO, according to a recent poll conducted by the Institute for Democracy.
"Membership of the Republic of Macedonia in NATO remains a strategic priority of foreign policy of our country," Zoran Jolevski, Macedonia's ambassador to the US, told SETimes. "Integration into Euro-Atlantic structures is our aspiration, but [also] a logical consequence of progress in which the country has invested more than a decade."
Macedonia has plenty of support. Within the last two weeks, Latvia and Norway are among nations that have publicly endorsed extending an invitation, and Macedonian officials met last week with Bulgarian counterparts hoping for a similar endorsement.
But there are indications that the nation's pleas may not be heard in Chicago. There are no plans at next week's meeting to discuss membership expansion. And US and German officials said last month that Macedonia must solve the name dispute with Greece before membership in the EU and NATO can be extended.
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has pleaded with NATO members to add Macedonia's application to the agenda.
"Regretfully, the agenda does not foresee a debate over the issue of Alliance enlargement," Gruevski wrote in a letter. "The NATO enlargement process needs to resume, since it will undoubtedly contribute to the strengthening of stability, prosperity and democracy in Southeast Europe. Over the years, Republic of Macedonia has met all required criteria for NATO membership."
The dispute with Greece runs deep, with seemingly little room for negotiation or movement on either side. The Macedonia name traces its roots hundreds of years, through the Roman and Byzantine empires.
Today, a large section of northern Greece is called Macedonia, and is home to nearly 3 million people. To the north of that region, the Republic of Macedonia -- smaller than Greece's district and with a million fewer residents -- says its claim to the name "Macedonia" is just as strong as the Greeks.
While efforts to create an autonomous Macedonia trace back to the 1800s, the Republic of Macedonia sprang into existence in 1991 when it declared independence from Yugoslavia. Greece immediately considered it a threat, claiming that the name "Macedonia" suggests a claim to the Greek province. The two nations quarreled from the beginning, wrangling for four years over Macedonia's flag before Macedonia agreed to change it in 1995.
Macedonia has been recognised by more than 100 countries and was admitted to the UN in 1993, but in that body -- and most other international organisations -- is identified as "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."
Macedonia applied for NATO membership in 2005 and believed that it would be accepted in 2008, but Greece blocked a formal invitation. In 2009, Greece blocked EU accession talks with its neighbour over the same issue.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that Greece's veto of Macedonia's membership was unlawful, but that ruling has done little to get Macedonia's application on NATO's agenda this month.
Despite the obstacles, Macedonia has made important strides in hopes of joining the organisation.
At NATO's office in Brussels, Deputy Defence Minister Petar Esmerov exchanged letters of understanding on April 27th with NATO to co-operate in command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"The Republic of Macedonia is the first partner country in the region that signed this agreement with the NATO agency," the defence ministry said in a statement.
"This agreement expands the road and provides a deeper and more advanced level of interoperability between the army of the Republic of Macedonia and NATO."
Prime Minister Gruevski said that Macedonia has met all criteria for membership in NATO.
"Macedonia as a nation participates wherever NATO demanded of us," Gruevski said. "Our soldiers are taking part in missions led by NATO and our lawmakers never voted against it. Macedonia is the fifth country by the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan and half of the country's defence budget is spent on our efforts there."
The nation has also embarked on significant infrastructure projects in conjunction with NATO. The organisation has agreed to continue funding the reconstruction of 13 bridges on transport Corridor 10. NATO and Macedonia signed a broad co-operation in Brussels last month, which provides 8.6m euros from NATO for the work so NATO troops can traverse the roads.
This is an additional signal that despite the obstruction of Greece on Macedonia's membership in the Alliance, NATO does not allow a security gap in the region," said Brigadier General Rex A. Spitler, KFOR chief of staff.
In Southeast Europe, Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Turkey are members of NATO. Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have a membership action plan in hopes of joining the organisation.