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For a half century, the NATO alliance has been the cornerstone of the United States’ and Europe’s shared security. The alliance’s enlargement has been a priority at each major meeting of NATO heads of state since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This weekend, when NATO leaders convene in Chicago, enlargement may be swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern. That would be a blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular.
Macedonia has been prevented from joining NATO despite meeting all qualifications for membership except for arriving at a satisfactory agreement with Greece concerning its name, and despite its contribution to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
When Slobodan Milosevic’s forces began their ruthless campaign of violence, more than 360,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees sought shelter in Macedonia. Providing sanctuary for so many refugees — the equivalent of a fifth of Macedonia’s entire population — was an overwhelming task for Macedonians, who themselves were working to contain the forces of ethnic nationalism that had torn apart the former Yugoslavia.
NATO’s collective campaign to halt Milosevic’s reign of terror would have been much more difficult without the assistance and support of the Republic of Macedonia, which served as a staging ground for NATO troops.
When Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, who recently passed away, was approached by U.S. and European leaders about launching the ground campaign into Kosovo from Macedonia, he voiced concerns that his young nation could be threatened by its militarized neighbors, who he claimed had “long knives and even longer memories.”
Having survived an assassination attempt himself, Gligorov knew the dangers of the present regional tensions firsthand and was kept awake at night by thoughts that neighbor could turn against neighbor in Macedonia, just as they had done in Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He recognized, before many of us, that stability in the Balkans could only be assured through the promise and the potential of sharing in Europe’s prosperity and security through membership in the European Union and NATO.
Gligorov agreed to further assist our campaign, but, in exchange, he asked that Macedonia be allowed to enter NATO — a request only the alliance’s member states could grant.
Since then, peace has endured and Macedonia has worked to make the difficult and necessary reforms to qualify for membership. On paper, the path forward is clear: any European democracy that establishes the rule of law, takes serious measures to prevent corruption and discrimination, holds democratic elections and dedicates a significant percentage of its gross domestic product to defense will earn an invitation to NATO. This path, however, has thus far been closed to the Republic of Macedonia, largely due to the failure to solve the “name problem,” principally with Greece.
At NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, alliance members were in unanimous agreement that Macedonia should be invited to join NATO — with one exception. Despite its significant contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Macedonia was denied an invitation due to objections from Greece.
This development broke with a long-standing precedent that ensured bilateral disputes would not prohibit an aspiring country from joining the alliance.
Macedonia has already changed its national flag and constitution to address Greek concerns and reach a 1995 accord that prohibits Greece from blocking Macedonians’ entrance into international organizations.
Last December, the International Court of Justice, by a 15-1 margin, ruled that Greece violated that accord when it blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO. It should be recognized that Macedonia’s ongoing exclusion from NATO empowers ethnic nationalists and imperils southeastern Europe’s hard-won stability. A continuation of the status quo is not in the best interests of the alliance.
We know all too well the cost in blood and treasure that the United States and its allies have paid to stabilize Southeastern Europe and maintain peace. As Macedonia’s soldiers wait on the doorstep of NATO forces’ headquarters in Afghanistan, facing the same dangers as American troops, without any national caveats, the summit in Chicago seems to be the right moment for NATO to open its doors to Macedonia without objection from any of the 28 member states.
Retired Gen. James Jones is the former national security adviser and commandant of the Marine Corps. He served as chief of staff to Joint Task Force Provide Promise for operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.