NATO Invites Republic of Macedonia to Join

(Bloomberg) -- NATO invited the Republic of Macedonia to join its ranks, seeking to expand deeper into southeastern Europe despite Russian opposition and criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump that has dented the group’s unity.

As it confronts attacks from Trump on Twitter that most of its members aren’t pulling their weight, the military alliance is trying to bring more countries into its fold in the Balkans, the site of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since World War II. It’s receiving pushback from Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, who has denounced the creep of western organizations into his country’s former sphere of influence as a threat.

The invitation Wednesday allows the poor, landlocked nation of 2 million people to start accession talks with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Paving the way was an agreement clinched last month with Greece over the name "Macedonia," which is shared by a northern Greek province. The former Yugoslav state’s agreement to change its name to "the Republic of North Macedonia" ended a decades-long feud, provided it follows through after a referendum later this year.

"Once all national procedures have been completed to finalize the name agreement, the country will join NATO as our 30th member," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a summit in Brussels.

Macedonia’s membership would close another gap for NATO in a region that Russia has continued to press for influence. While it has built stronger ties with Serbia, a country that shares Russia’s Orthodox religion and alphabet, Moscow was accused of staging a failed coup and trying to assassinate the prime minister of Montenegro, which joined the military alliance last year.

Now it’s Macedonia that’s arguing that NATO entry will protect it from Russia and help shield it from interference in its domestic affairs. At the same time, the EU said it will launch a new screening process in Macedonia and neighboring Albania to prepare both countries for the start of accession talks in 2019.

Both processes will bring Prime Minister Zoran Zaev closer to his goal of cementing his country’s place in Europe. With living standards of just 37 percent of the EU average last year, his government is aiming to take advantage of the increased stability and investment that have accompanied the NATO and EU memberships of other ex-communist states that have joined the blocs since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

NATO’s future is not a given, however, with leaders under pressure to raise spending and worried that Trump may undermine unity even as the group’s Baltic members warn they need U.S. and other support to ward off Russia. They’re also worried of what, if any, promises Trump may make to Putin when the two meet on Monday in Helsinki.

“Without open perspectives for NATO and EU membership, Macedonia’s future is uncertain,” Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska said Tuesday in an address to the nation. “The NATO membership brings stability and security.”

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