Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki: The unfinished business of NATO enlargement

Of the several European nations waiting on NATO’s doorstep, the Republic of Macedonia is by all accounts first in line — but in some ways also the most stymied. All agree that Macedonia has earned NATO membership, through political and economic reforms at home and military contributions to NATO missions abroad. But despite having met all membership conditions four years ago, our entry into NATO was vetoed by Greece. For this reason — and this reason only — Macedonia continues to wait on NATO’s doorstep, even while our soldiers guard the organization's headquarters in Kabul and perform other dangerous NATO missions.

Macedonia's accession will strengthen the alliance and make the Balkans more stable and prosperous. Greece’s objections to Macedonia’s NATO membership stem from a myth that an independent Republic of Macedonia would pose a threat to Greek territorial integrity. On the contrary, NATO membership will bind Macedonia and Greece into an unbreakable security alliance, as well as provide Greece with the comfort of sharing land borders exclusively with NATO member states. It is in the common interest of all NATO member states that both countries be part of the Euro-Atlantic family.

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Later this month, President Obama will host in Chicago the leaders of NATO's 28 member nations. NATO’s mission of ensuring security and stability across all of Europe, including former communist countries, cannot be realized without the entry of southeastern European nations that have met the criteria for membership. Nations of this region therefore look to the United States — for whom this enlarged trans-Atlantic security umbrella and greater European stability are key foreign-policy priorities — to lead this effort, as it has done in the past.
Macedonia’s efforts to meet NATO’s criteria for entry — among them demonstrating a steadfast commitment to human rights, strengthening the rule of law, building democratic institutions and allocating a significant percentage of its GDP to defense expenditures — have assumed a shared U.S. goal toward the organization’s enlargement. Likewise, NATO’s pledge that membership is open to those European democracies that meet its stringent criteria is also being tested.

For more than a decade, NATO has been a critical force for consolidating democracy and extending Western values across southeastern Europe. As we all work to put behind us the ethnic, religious or nationalist divisions across the region that divided us so tragically in the past, Macedonia's entry into NATO would show our Balkan neighbors that the long road to meeting the alliance’s benchmarks does ultimately pay off. But if Macedonia’s years of preparation and commitments find no reward and come to naught, those difficult reforms at home become more difficult — and our neighbors that have further to go will take notice as well. What's more, continued NATO enlargement would guarantee lasting peace and prosperity for a region that the United States has devoted lives and treasure to help stabilize over a span of 20 years. Macedonia's membership in NATO will be the most valuable confirmation that progress in southeastern Europe is irreversible.

The Republic of Macedonia already plays a critical role in the trans-Atlantic alliance. We were among the first countries to join the global coalition against terrorism and send troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, where we are one of the top five per capita troop contributors. At this moment, Macedonian soldiers are guarding the NATO compound in Kabul — literally protecting one door to NATO while unable to step through another. This has not been without costs, as when Macedonian troops fiercely fought alongside American soldiers while defending against a Taliban attack on NATO headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.

Even the weight of international law is clearly in favor of Macedonian membership in NATO. In December 2011 the World Court ruled that Greece may not block Macedonia's accession to NATO or other international organizations, clearing the final hurdle to NATO entry. Macedonia will continue to engage in talks with Greece and seek an agreement that is mutually acceptable and in line with core democratic values. However, its continued objection to Macedonia's membership in NATO is neither legal nor beneficial to the alliance.

A free and undivided European continent is within reach. Presidents Clinton and Bush oversaw the historic enlargement eastward that NATO has experienced to date. The U.S. Congress’s consistent support for the Republic of Macedonia’s aspirations — exemplified by the 2007 NATO Freedom Consolidation Act and the 2009 NATO-Western Balkans Support Act — has clearly communicated an enduring commitment to this vision. The NATO Enhancement Act of 2012, introduced by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), is the latest testament to our strong bilateral ties.

When President Obama welcomed Albania and Croatia to NATO in 2009, he said: "This will not be the last time that we have such a celebration, and I look forward to the day when we can welcome Macedonia to the alliance.” Today, we all have an interest in the fulfillment of that vision.