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Why Greece and North Macedonia’s new friendship is good news for NATO

What’s in a name? In Southeastern Europe, one name change could expand the largest alliance in the world.

Since Macedonia was formed in 1991, Greece has objected to its name because a northern portion of its own country is called Macedonia. And ever since, Greece blocked Macedonia’s request to join NATO.

But now Macedonia has changed its name to “North Macedonia,” and the small tweak was enough for the Greek parliament to become the first country to ratify North Macedonia’s ascension to NATO.

On Thursday, North Macedonia was at the table at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Washington, D.C., for the first time as an official invitee. What exactly changed? The foreign ministers of Greece and North Macedonia sat down with the PBS NewsHour for their first ever joint interview.

“What we have tried with our neighbors to do is to diffuse the nationalism, the poison of nationalism, which is something quite different than patriotism [in] the region which was always the powder keg of Europe,” Greek Foreign Minister Georgios Katrougalos said. “We love both of us, our countries, but it is not necessary to hate the country of the other.”

The two countries’ reconciliation “extends the zone of stability in a region that needs more stability,” said North Macedonia Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. “And it makes us an ally that the U.S. and other allies can rely upon.”

Asked whether President Donald Trump’s prior questioning of NATO’s relevance meant the U.S. commitment to NATO was in doubt, Katrougalos delivered veiled criticism.

“We both want to keep this partnership alive and kicking, but in order to do that, there are some things that are necessary to do any kind of relationship: Mutual respect. Not unilateral movements. So we’re going to do our part in Europe,” he added, “and we’re expecting our American friends to do the same.”

North Macedonia still faces many challenges, regional analysts say, including corruption and patronage, media independence, and rights of minority ethnic Albanians. But Dimitrov said the security provided by the country eventually joining NATO had already provided prosperity.

“We are already feeling that predictability essentially triggers” economic growth, he said.

U.S. officials say solving what used to be referred to as an “intractable conflict” between the two countries would help combat Russian influence in a critical region. But both foreign ministers held out hope of working with Russia, not against it.

NATO will, at some point, “need to have a dialogue, to de-escalate the renewed tensions that started with Georgia and then Ukraine. But this bridge will have to be built on some important pillars, where international law is very important,” Dimitrov said. “And I think we will help in our own way as the 30th member state.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's in a name? For Shakespeare, who asked the question a few centuries ago, the answer was, the sweetness of a rose. Today, the answer is, the future of the largest alliance in the world.

    Let me explain, and show you what might be the most historically significant selfie in recent memory. Those are two people whose countries have been feuding for almost 30 years. The prime ministers of Greece and North Macedonia. And it is that name — North Macedonia — that is going to redefine NATO and reinforce western efforts to counter Russia.

    Let's go to the map. Since Macedonia was formed in 1991, Greece has objected to its name, because part of Greece is called Macedonia. So Greece blocked Macedonia's request to join NATO.

    But now Macedonia has agreed to change names, and the Greek parliament has become the first country to ratify north Macedonia's ascension to NATO–a move that the u-s believes will help combat malign Russian influence in a critical region.

    And so it's my privilege to welcome foreign ministers — Nikola Dimitrov of North Macedonia, and Georgios Katrougalos of Greece, for their first joint interview. Thank you so much to you both. Let's start with North Macedonia. It is smaller than Maryland. It has a population of about 2 million. Why should Americans care about this story, and why should Americans care about North Macedonia?

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    The first ever NATO operation in its history took place in our region back in '99. So these moves, essentially, extends the zone of stability in a region that needs more stability. And it makes us an ally that the US and other allies can rely upon. We also bring a bit of freshness to the alliance because we've been on the outside for a long time and we know how cold it is on the outside. So I think we can bring that enthusiasm and try to spread it among the member states.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And remind people it's warmer on the inside.

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    It's warmer indeed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So to speak. We just heard an argument for the stability of the region, of the Balkans. Expand that argument out a little bit. How does stability in this area add to stability all over Europe?

  • George Katrougalos:

    Well first of all to connect to your starting line about the rose, the War of the Roses was not about roses. So the dispute about the name because [it was] also a dispute about identity, about the national sensitivities in the region which was always the powder keg of Europe. What we have tried with our neighbors to do is to diffuse the nationalism, the poison of nationalism, which is something quite different than patriotism. We love both of us, our countries, but it is not necessary to hate the country of the other.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For your country, how important is NATO to the future prosperity of the people of North Macedonia?

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    Even though we are still not formally part of the alliance we are already feeling that predictability essentially triggers economy. And last year we have recorded the highest amount of foreign direct investments in the amount of 624 millions of euros, which is an important amount for our size for our economy for our country. So we have, by being on the right side of history. I think managed to produce some predictability and a friendly future between our two countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're both here for the NATO ministerial here in Washington one of the elephants in the room that people are trying to avoid but it's difficult too is President Trump. He has questioned the viability of NATO in the past. Questioned frankly the relevance of new countries to come into NATO. Is there a concern that President Trump personally and therefore the US is not committed to the future of NATO.

  • George Katrougalos:

    Well there is a discussion now regarding EU-USA relations. We both want to keep this partnership alive and kicking, but in order to do that, there are some things that are necessary to do any kind of relationship. Mutual respect. Not unilateral movements. So we're going to do our part in Europe. I speak, and we're expecting our American friends to do the same.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Can you expand on that. What does that mean they expect your American friends to do the same kind of work.

  • George Katrougalos:

    I just said, mutual respect is in the tone of what we are saying, even if what we're saying is true and correct. Avoid unilateral moves, is not trying to impose something unilaterally when we could result in a meaningful consensus, if we were speaking. I don't want to me to be more explicit, but I think I'm describing and you can add this that easily the content.

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    The speech of both houses of the Congress of Secretary-General of NATO Stoltenberg had a very important line. He said it is good to have friends. And given that, our times, where the world is getting smaller and is very inter-connected, it is very difficult to face one of the big challenges of our times at a national level. So I argue that even the greatest country needs allies, needs friends, of course, on the basis of important principles. I think the the issue of fair burden sharing is an important issue. It has been an issue that has been pushed by a sequence of several American presidents–

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since John F. Kennedy made the same statement, just with a different tone.

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    And this is an important message and I think it resonates. European allies are picking up. We are very much committed regardless of how small or big we are to do our part, and not only to spend enough, which is this 2 percent threshold of our GDP on defense, but also make sure that what we spend this amount on actually is worthwhile for the collective security of the alliance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about Russia for for a few minutes and I'll ask about the North Macedonia efforts that Russia and of course Greece has faced the same thing. You actually had to kick Russian officials out. Do you believe at this moment the fact that you guys are here together does present a bit of a united front or at least a message to Russia's attempts to try and have influence in this part of the world.

  • George Katrougalos:

    We think that the biggest that challenge for NATO but especially for Europe is how to reintegrate Russia into the regional system of European security. We have tried and we have succeeded to do that in the past that was the Soviet Union, a much more aggressive and stronger player. If this was possible before, it can happen again. What's a precondition? Respect of international law. Avoiding any kind of aggression. So we are not maybe ready now to face Russia because, with these characteristics clearly they're lacking. But this must be our target.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But just to put a point on that. I mean Russia has not respected international law regards to eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and you could argue Syria. And in your case you know you haven't explicitly blamed Russia but, do you believe that Russia was trying to manipulate the online space and influence the results of the referendum?

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    We are going to be part of an alliance where, at some point, to go back to George's point, on the need to have a dialogue, to de-escalate the renewed tensions that started with Georgia and then Ukraine. But this bridge will have to be built on some important pillars, where international law is very important. And I think we will help in our own way as the 30th member state in this regard.

  • George Katrougalos:

    I don't think we must have in mind, to be as a basic, let's say, priority, to be against anybody. We are not living in that Cold War environment. That means that it is not a bipolar world. That means that we do not have just one rival. We have a asymmetric threats. What do we must have always in mind is that we must have policies based on principles, protection of the openness of our societies. Rule of law, human rights. And try to integrate as many countries and as many political entities as we can.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    George Katrougalos of Greece, and Nikola Dimitrov of North Macedonia, the two foreign ministers thank you to you both.

  • Nikola Dimitrov:

    Thanks so much.

  • George Katrougalos:

    It was a pleasure.

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