February 1, 2019

IntelBrief: What’s in a Name? Membership in NATO

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addresses the media during a news conference at a government building in Skopje, Macedonia, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. Macedonia late Friday fulfilled its part of a historic deal that will pave its way to NATO membership and normalize relations with neighboring Greece, after lawmakers approved constitutional changes to rename the country North Macedonia. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski).
  • On January 31, Greece announced it would vote on the proposed NATO accession plan put forward by the newly anointed country of North Macedonia.
  • On January 25, Greece’s parliament approved the change from Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia, ending a nearly three-decade long dispute.
  • Beyond nomenclature, the decision involves complex factors including history and nationalism, while clearing a path for North Macedonia to join NATO.
  • Having another Balkan country in NATO will help counter Russia’s malign influence in the region which is focused on sowing division in the West.


By a vote of 153 in favor and 146 against, Greece’s parliament voted on January 25 to approve the name, ‘the Republic of North Macedonia’ for its neighbor to the north. The decision ends a 27-year long stalemate between Greece and the country formerly known as Macedonia, a dispute that had grown increasingly vitriolic in nature over the past several years. The move was met with protests by several ultra-nationalist groups in Greece, including the notorious ‘Golden Dawn,’ which views the issue as a ‘traitorous’ surrender of Greece’s ties to antiquity—as well as a current territorial threat to the Greek province named Macedonia—in which the city of Thessaloniki is located. Overall, the deal is supported by perhaps less than half of the Greek population. Still dealing with severe economic challenges, for many Greeks, the debate surrounding who gets to use the name of Macedonia has become a line-in-the-sand issue of intense pride buoyed by history, culture and politics.

The domestic impact of the ‘Prespa Agreement’ for Greece and the government of North Macedonia remains uncertain, but the impact at both the regional and international levels is more apparent. Many in the West see this as an overwhelmingly positive development for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and possibly the European Union (EU). Both organizations have struggled to stem the rising tide of nationalism and populism sweeping Europe, a byproduct of which has been an unending critique of multilateralism and complaints of a loss of sovereignty to decision-making by entrenched elites in Brussels. Greece, which has been a NATO member since 1952, has blocked any consideration of Macedonia joining NATO even as other Balkan countries Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia joined in 2004; Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and Montenegro joined in 2017.

From the moment it declared its independence in 1991, with the collapse of Yugoslavia, Skopje faced immediate and sustained criticism from Greece over the name Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great and a significant place in Greece’s history. Greece refused to call its northern neighbor by its chosen name, using the acronym ‘Fyrom’ (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) at the United Nations, NATO and other international forums. On January 31, Greece announced that it would vote in parliament to ratify the proposed NATO membership of the Republic of North Macedonia ‘in coming days,’ which would then make the name change legal and binding. Moreover, for North Macedonia, which has not formally and practically changed its name until Greece ratifies the NATO agreement, the country would then have five years to rename itself on its passports, licenses, and other official documents now reading the Republic of Macedonia.

Russia remains opposed to the agreement, fearing NATO enlargement and further encroachment into its sphere of influence. Moscow encourages division among NATO member states and partner nations, just as it does among EU members. Russia has consistently launched influence operations aimed at exploiting already existing tensions over the issue. Russia has become the center of far-right, ultra-nationalist, and white supremacist movements now active across the EU, the U.K., and the U.S. Yet in Greece, Russia did not ‘win’ and the Greek government approved the historic agreement not to keep fighting over historical terms, paving the way for another NATO member. Accession talks for the newly named North Macedonia to join the EU are expected to begin in 2019, which would be another setback for the Kremlin and its relentless disinformation campaign.


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