NATO Membership Still Out of Reach for U.S.-Friendly Balkan State

April 23, 2012 - 4:27 AM

Macedonia

Macedonian Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi meets with International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. John Allen at ISAF headquarters on March 31, 2012. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Kap Kim)

(CNSNews.com) – As the NATO summit in Chicago approaches, there is growing support in Congress for the alliance to stop delaying the long-stalled accession of Macedonia, a friend of the U.S. and a committed ally in Afghanistan. The Balkan state has met every condition for membership but remains blocked by Greece over a 21 year-old naming dispute.

Macedonia was granted a NATO “membership action plan” (MAP) – status that puts an aspiring member on the road to accession – as long ago as 1999, and in 2008 members agreed that Macedonia had met the criteria for membership. But the alliance operates on the basis of consensus, and at an April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Greece refused to give way.

Athens says its landlocked northern neighbor’s use of the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of that name. U.N. mediation has dragged on without resolution since soon after Macedonia, formerly a constituent part of Yugoslavia, achieved independence in 1991. As a provisional measure, not accepted as permanent by either side, the U.N. calls the country “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”

Bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate give strong support to ongoing NATO enlargement, and urge President Obama to lead efforts in Chicago next month “to invite, or provide a clear roadmap for inviting, the Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro to join NATO.” (They also call for MAPs for Georgia and Bosnia. Russia strongly opposes any such move in Georgia’s case.)

At the beginning of April, 54 members of Congress – 22 Republicans and 32 Democrats – urged President Obama in a letter “to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well-deserved formal invitation to join the Alliance during the Chicago Summit” on May 20-21.

The administration’s position is that it would welcome Macedonia joining but cannot force the issue as long as Greece refuses.

“NATO is a consensus-based organization,” U.S. Ambassador Paul Wohlers told Macedonian media during an “informal discussion” in February. “It’s an organization where every member takes a very solemn obligation to defend its allies, the other members of the alliance, and that means putting your forces and your citizens potentially at risk.

“So it is very important that everybody have a say in who is a member,” he said. “That concept of consensus approval of membership is not going to change.”

The discussion with the ambassador was dominated by the NATO question, and reporters’ questions reflected the depth of exasperation felt by many Macedonians after two decades of fruitless negotiations with Greece.

At NATO’s November 2010 summit in Lisbon, alliance members reconfirmed that Macedonia could join once the name dispute was resolved.

Then, last December, Macedonia felt its position received a boost when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Greece’s blocking of Macedonia’s attempt to join NATO in 2008 had breached an interim agreement brokered by the U.N. in 1995. The ruling did not, however, instruct Greece to lift its obstruction.

Asked about the court decision, Wohlers said that while it was binding on Macedonia and Greece, it was not binding on NATO.

“With no disrespect to the ICJ or any other organization, NATO is not going to subcontract out its membership decision to some other organization,” he said. “There is nothing in the NATO structure which allows any outside organization to tell NATO what they’re going to do or who they’re going to bring in.”

(In reality, NATO members have bent in the past to outside views over membership decisions, as seen most clearly when Germany and others, under Russian pressure, refused to endorse MAPs for Georgia and another former Soviet republic, Ukraine, in 2008.

A subsequent change of government in Ukraine moved the issue to the backburner there but Georgia remains keen to join the alliance, whose position is that Georgia “will become a member” at some unspecified future point.)

Frustration

As things now stand, Macedonia’s Balkan near-neighbor Montenegro looks likely to join NATO before it does, despite the face Macedonia received a MAP a full decade before Montenegro did.

Macedonians’ frustration is heightened by the fact their country has been a strong supporter of NATO-led operations.

For years it has provided host nation support to troops, including U.S. troops, of the peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) transiting the region, while securing the logistical supply line for KFOR troops.

Macedonia is also a participant in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and at one stage accounted for the biggest per capita troop contribution despite not being a NATO member. A country of two million, Macedonia is currently the fifth-biggest per capita contributor, with 177 troops in Afghanistan. (Greece, with a population of 10.7 million, has 122 troops there.)

Beyond the NATO alliance, Macedonian troops were deployed continuously in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, carrying out hundreds of joint and independent combat missions as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

(Greece strongly opposed the Iraq war; a European Union-commissioned poll in late 2003 found 96 percent of Greeks were against the military intervention – higher than in any of other 14 European countries surveyed. Greece also topped the list – 88 percent – on the question of viewing the U.S. as a threat to world peace.)

Last week Macedonia held annual bilateral defense consultations with the U.S., and Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon on Tuesday, after which a Pentagon spokesman said Panetta had told his visitor “he looks forward to the country’s future accession to NATO.”

Besimi also visited Vermont, whose National Guard has worked together with the Macedonian Army for almost two decades. Macedonia is roughly the size of the Green Mountain State.

At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to a question on Macedonia and NATO enlargement, “I have long believed that NATO must remain open to any European democratic state that wishes to join its ranks, because NATO was after all not to be an exclusive club, it was to be a collective security mechanism for democracies …”

“I favor very much the integration of any European state that is ready,” Rice added, “and it seems to me that Macedonia is ready.”