Metodija Koloski: Time for US to take sides in dispute over Macedonia's name

Guest Commentary

In light of the recent proposal by Greece’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Evangelos Venizelos, to change the name of Macedonia to “Slavo-Albanian Macedonia,” Congress must urge President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to send a clear message to our Greek friends to abandon their nationalist positions once and for all.

In the ’90s, Venizelos was instrumental in advising the Greek government to put a three-year economic embargo on Macedonia. Current Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was the architect of Greece’s policy on Macedonia’s name, stating that Macedonia would one day be divided between a “Greater Albania” and “Greater Bulgaria.”

Leaders who insist on border changes within Europe cause instability and stagnation, creating a negative ripple effect on all surrounding countries. The detrimental effects of such policies echo back to Slobodan Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia,” a clear failure.

Greece does not hold a monopoly on the name Macedonia or Macedonian history. Macedonia continues to be blackmailed by Greece, and Macedonians worldwide will not agree to change their name and identity. It is long overdue for the U.S., NATO, and EU to call a spade a spade and publically recognize that in the interest of building a Europe that is whole, free and at peace, Greece must back down. And NATO and the EU should extend a welcoming hand to Macedonia.

Greece takes over the EU Presidency next month, 10 years after it spearheaded the Thessaloniki agenda, which would see the entire Western Balkans (including Macedonia) in the EU and NATO by 2014. However, today, we are further away from realizing that dream. Clearly, U.S. leadership and re-engagement are essential.

As the prime example of democracy and freedom, the United States must ensure that Greece holds to its international legal obligations. Greece’s ethno-nationalist, centrist, populist position jeopardizes the future of Southeast Europe and puts U.S. interests at risk.

In 2011, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Greece violated Article 11 of the 1995 United Nations Interim Accord by objecting to Macedonia's membership into NATO at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Instead of taking this ruling into consideration, NATO leaders, including our own, once again succumbed to Greek pressure and did not a extend a well-deserved invitation to Macedonia during the 2012 Chicago Summit. Greece has an obligation not to veto Macedonia’s membership in international bodies under the 1995 United Nations Interim Accord, which the U.S., under then-President Clinton, brokered.

As of today, 135 countries, including the U.S., U.K., and Canada, have recognized Macedonia by its constitutional name.

Macedonia has been a steadfast friend and ally of the United States. It took in 400,000 refugees during the Kosovo war and sent troops to Iraq and peacekeepers to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon. Today, it is the fifth highest International Security Assistance Force troop contributor per capita patrolling the ISAF headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

U.S., NATO, and EU leaders must not allow Greece to block Macedonia once again at the EU council meeting in Brussels later this month and the NATO Summit hosted by the U.K. in September 2014, putting the future of the country at further risk.

While Greece is faced with serious economic problems, it stands to gain nothing by obstructing and destabilizing Macedonia and the region. With the rise of extremism and xenophobia in Greece, migrants, Macedonians and other ethnic and faith-based minorities including Muslims, Catholics, and Jews are facing even more discrimination.

It is our duty as Americans to ensure that Macedonia enjoys all the freedoms it deserves in the world, including its freedom to use the name Macedonia, and for Macedonians to speak Macedonian and identify as Macedonians without prejudice. This is a human rights issue, and Macedonia needs strong allies in Congress to urge Obama and Kerry to do the right thing.

Congress has and should play a role. The bi-cameral and bi-partisan support of Congress today is crucial for a better tomorrow for Macedonia and all of Southeast Europe.

Koloski is the president of the United Macedonian Diaspora, and co-chair of the Southeast Europe Coalition.