The United States has recognized the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia as “Macedonia,” the name strongly rejected by neighbor Greece for the past 13 years, President Branko Crvenkovski said on Thursday.
It was the first major policy move announced by Washington following re-election of President Bush on Wednesday.
There was jubilation in Macedonia, an ally of the Americans in the Iraq military coalition, but outrage in Greece, a NATO ally, where the news came out of the blue. The European Union also did not appear to have been informed in advance.
Crvenkovski confirmed the move on national television.
“Today is a great day for Macedonia and all Macedonians wherever they are,” he said. He also assured Greeks that “the Republic of Macedonia is strongly determined to continue to build friendly and good neighborly relations.”
But in Athens, Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis called in U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller to formally protest at what he called “this unilateral U.S. decision.” It would have “many negative effects,” Molyviatis added, without elaborating.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned later to assure Greece “that the decision is not a turn against Greece and is not linked to the U.S. elections,” ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos told reporters in Athens.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana seemed surprised. “I have not spoken with the Americans. I’m expecting a telephone call in the morning in which we will discuss that issue, if in the end it becomes true,” he told reporters.
“This is still probably not yet a decision taken formally,” Solana said two hours before the Macedonian leader went on TV.
'Huge gesture' by Bush
Athens has opposed the name ever since the republic of two million won independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Until now it had the support of all NATO allies, except Turkey, for refusing recognition. They refer to it in all documents by the acronym FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Greece blockaded landlocked Macedonia for 18 months in the 1990s, cutting off vital access to the sea until Skopje agreed to change the Macedonian flag and alter the constitution.
Greek investment in Macedonia has since flourished. But usurping the name that Greece has cherished down through the millennia remains one of the most emotive issues for the homeland of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonians.
Macedonians are Slav people whose language is similar to that of Bulgaria, but who claim to be descendants of Alexander.
Washington’s recognition was “a huge gesture” to the country, said former foreign minister Ljubomir Frckovski.
“It’s the first political gesture made by Bush after his victory, which is bizarre, but however bizarre we welcome it.”
Macedonia, bordered to the north by Kosovo, teetered on the brink of open civil war in 2001 during seven months of conflict between state security forces and an Albanian guerrilla army.
The U.S. nod to its nationhood could deflate support for a nationalist-inspired referendum on Sunday to overturn a law giving Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority more rights. The law is part of the peace accord which ended the fighting.
Nationalists say it threatens the integrity of the country and would lead to ethnic division. But the EU and the United States want the legislation upheld in order to further multi-ethnic peace.
Ali Ahmeti, a former guerrilla who leads the main Albanian party in Macedonia’s coalition government, said the U.S. move was “a clear message for Macedonians to think of the future.”
Macedonia is a member of the U.S.-led military alliance in Iraq with 32 troops in the coalition. Greeks, by contrast, opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.