US wades into 'Macedonia' name row

By Daniel Howden
Click to follow
The Independent US

Washington waded into one of Europe's longest standing diplomatic crises yesterday, less than 24 hours after the US election result, recognising the former Yugoslav Republic Macedonia (FYROM) by its controversially truncated name 'Macedonia'.

The first major policy move since President Bush won a second term was done without consulting the European Union, and flies in the face of strong opposition from Nato ally and FYROM neighbour Greece.

The unilateral move sparked celebration in the tiny country of two million but clearly caught the EU off guard. "The EU has the position at this moment that the official name is FYROM. For the time being we can use this name as we look at the consequences," said Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, who holds the EU presidency.

In Skopje, the capital of FRYOM, President Branko Crvenkovski wasted no time in announcing it on national television: "Today is a great day for Macedonia and all Macedonians wherever they are," he said.

But in Athens the response was very different. Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis called in US Ambassador Thomas Miller to formally protest what he called a 'unilateral decision'. Mr Molyviatis warned that Washington's initiative would have 'many negative effects' but stopped short of spelling them out.

Greece has objected to the name 'Macedonia' since the state on its northern border gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Athens insists its namesake northern prefecture of Greece containing the country's second city Thessaloniki has prior claim to the Macedonia tag.

The root of the dispute is rival claims to the heritage and homeland of Alexander the Great, one of the most emotive issues in Greek culture and history.

Tensions escalated when the Greeks blockaded their landlocked neighbour and after a two-year standoff, Skopje agreed the compromise of calling itself by the provisional name of the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and the country entered the United Nations.

Until yesterday, Greece's Nato and EU allies had unanimously backed Athens' stance. The US recognition was seen as a pay off for their role in the Iraq coalition, where they have sent 32 troops serving with the US-led military alliance. In contrast, Greece has criticised the invasion and occupation.

Athens later sought to play down the apparent snub from Washington. "Late in the afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had a telephone contact with the Greek foreign minister to assure him that the decision is not a turn against Greece and is not linked to the U.S. elections," said Greek government spokesman George Koumoutsakos.

The surprise recognition comes narrowly ahead of Sunday's referendum aimed at overturning a law that afford increased rights to the large Albanian minority. Macedonian nationalists insist that the legislation threatens the integrity of the country but the EU and US support the law syaing that it helps to maintain a multi-ethnic peace.