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It’s all in the name for North Macedonia’s NATO, EU bids

For years, the nation known until recently as the Republic of Macedonia has worked to gain NATO and European Union membership, with efforts blocked by Greece because of a dispute over its name. But in February, the country adopted a new name, North Macedonia, and is hopeful the name change will open the door for membership. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    Much of the news out of the European Union these days has to do with one country — the United Kingdom — trying to get out. What's getting far less attention is the story of a small nation making a play to get into the E.U. and if it gets its way, it will join NATO as well.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from the Republic of North Macedonia.

  • Jordan Trajkov:

    I use American oak. I use French oak, and I use Hungarian oak and also Macedonian oak.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Winemaker Jordan Trajkov is facing an unusual challenge.

    So the label says "Republic of Macedonia."

  • Jordan Trajkov:

    Yes.

  • Chris Livesay:

    He has to change the labels on all his bottles and it's going to be expensive. Twenty-thousand Euros just to change the labels?

  • Jordan Trajkov:

    Just to change the labels.

  • Chris Livesay:

    It's part of the cost of doing business in this ambitious country that just last February took the extraordinary step of changing its name from the Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia, something the government says was necessary to make political peace with its neighbor: Greece.

    Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of North Macedonia, led the controversial name change campaign. It's part of his plan to go all-out to align with the West. His country of about 2 million people is located just north of Greece. Ever since it gained independence from the former Yugoslavia, Zaev says, it's had two parallel objectives.

  • Zoran Zaev:

    Since independence in 1991 the first prime goals for our country was membership of NATO because of security and participation of keeping peace all around the world and our membership in the European Union.

  • Chris Livesay:

    But those aspirations — being part of the NATO military alliance and the EU single market — were being blocked by Greece for a reason that may seem arcane: Greece has a region called Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

    The name dates back to ancient history, when historical Macedonia contained parts of six Balkan countries including modern day Greece and North Macedonia. By claiming the name "Republic of Macedonia" in 1991, the new country angered Greece.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Were there ever any ambitions on the part of North Macedonia —

  • Simonida Kacarska:

    No.

  • Chris Livesay:

    To actually annex parts of Greece because of the name?

  • Simonida Kacarska:

    Discussions on territorial claims border science fiction.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Dr. Simonida Kacarska is director of a local pro-EU think tank called the European Policy Institute.

  • Simonida Kacarska:

    If we take a look back, especially when these arguments were made in the early 1990s, Macedonia was a country without an army. So these claims in many ways have been also misused by politicians both in Greece for nationalistic reasons and then later on in certain points in Macedonia as well having led to an escalation of the conflict for the next 27 years.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Albania. They are a member of NATO.

  • Bujar Osmani:

    Albania is a member of NATO. Greece.

  • Chris Livesay:

    North Macedonia's Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani says there was a natural desire for Macedonia to be part of both NATO and the EU.

  • Bujar Osmani:

    We are surrounded by EU and NATO member states.

  • Chris Livesay:

    And he says the United States, which was looking for a stable partner in the region, has been very involved, helping negotiate peace between its ethnic Albanian and Macedonian population and helping grow the country's democratic institutions from scratch.

  • Bujar Osmani:

    The United States through their USAID program has spent 1 billion dollars in the last 20 years in the country to build up the institutions, establishing the rule of law, maintaining the interethnic relations that will provide stability of the country.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Although they are different entities, the EU and NATO have similar requirements for membership, including that votes to allow new members must be unanimous.

    When the then-Republic of Macedonia thought it was going to be admitted to NATO in 2008, Greece vetoed it. And later made it clear it would block the country's membership in the EU as well.

  •  Simonida Kacarska:

    Membership in NATO and also the European Union for this part of the world is understood as a validation of your statehood. The citizens, they overwhelmingly support NATO and EU membership between 70 and 80 percent of the population. So if this is a shared goal and everyone has been working towards it, then the disappointment that comes with it is also big.

  • Chris Livesay:

    After Greece's veto, Macedonia's then-right wing nationalist government was emboldened, and amped up tensions with Greece by launching a huge building project in the country's capital, Skopje. It erected dozens of statues of what it claimed were "Macedonian" heroes, like Alexander the Great, whom Greece claims as its own.

    Then in 2017 a new pro-western government was voted in led by Prime Minister Zaev. He held talks with then Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and signed an agreement which contained Zaev's promise to dial back the nationalism and rename the country "North Macedonia" to distinguish itself from the Greek province.

    Headlines called it a breakthrough agreement. Zaev and Tsipras were both nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • Zoran Zaev:

    I am very proud. For me, it's history. I am proud. My children are proud. My friends are proud. Why? Because I helped my country finally after 28 years to be part of the modern western democratic world.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Besides changing the name, the country has renamed the highway leading to Greece "Friendship Highway," changed the airport's name from "Alexander the Great" to "Skopje International" and is considering how best to publicly identify this statue and others to make it clear they are not "Macedonian" per se but part of ancient Greek history.

    But the name change has also proved deeply unpopular to many.

  • Vladimir Cetkar:

    I identify myself as Macedonian. My country is Macedonia. Republic of Macedonia.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Vladimir Cetkar is a well-known Macedonian musician and outspoken name change critic.

  • Vladimir Cetkar:

    It's very unfortunate that we are put in a position to be apologetic of who we are. To say, I'm sorry I'm Macadonian. Oh, I'm sorry I said that. This is the feeling and I definitely think that nobody, no nation in the world should go through this.

  • Chris Livesay:

    But the government insists the change to the country's name will pay off in the end. Already it says the work it's done to meet EU standards has contributed to a better economy, a drop in unemployment and increased wages. Zaev says he also wants to do more to lure back the thousands of young people who have left the country looking for better opportunities. People like Martina Naumovska.

  • Martina Naumovska:

    I have friends that left and I have also many friends that came back, which is the good thing.

  • Vladimir Cetkar:

    Naumovska studied and worked in the EU before deciding to return to help run and teach at a new IT startup in her home country.

  • Martina Naumovska:

    When I finish a class in Macedonia I feel like I did something great, which is a feeling that, you know, only probably you can have when you do something in a country that you were raised and where your roots are.

  • Chris Livesay:

    This week, the EU Council is scheduled to vote on whether to let North Macedonia start the process on joining the EU. It's an important step but a bureaucratic process that will still take several years to complete, and there are obstacles ahead. France has expressed skepticism about allowing any new EU members. North Macedonia's former chief special prosecutor has been arrested in an extortion scandal, raising EU concerns about corruption.

    Are you optimistic that North Macedonia is going to join NATO?

  • Simonida Kacarska:

    Yes. The ratification process of our NATO accession protocol is going well.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Are you optimistic that North Macedonia is going to join European Union?

  • Simonida Kacarska:

    To a certain level, less than on the case of NATO, and it is going to be a much more uphill battle and a much longer battle. We've learned from our history there are no guarantees.

  • Chris Livesay:

    You have the EU flag up here.

  • Zoran Zaev:

    Yes. The next step the European Union must make decision. We make it from our side.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Prime Minister Zaev has a more personal concern. That delay could lead to a backlash that will undermine his coalition in Parliament and cause his government to fall.

  • Chris Livesay:

    They will destroy your government?

  • Zoran Zaev:

    Yes, completely. The majority will be dismissed.

  • Chris Livesay:

    So the stakes are high?

  • Zoran Zaev:

    Yes. Very high.

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