Macedonia deep in diplomatic limbo

April 30, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It is the strangest of international relationships: The United States has kept more than 500 troops in Macedonia to protect it and has considered the dispatch of thousands more, but still refuses to treat the former Yugoslav republic like a full-fledged country.

The U.S. troops are there, but there has never been an American ambassador. There is also no agreement between the United States and Macedonia on the country's name.

This odd relationship is the result of a bitter history involving Macedonia and Greece and the political influence wielded by Greece's supporters in Washington, including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.

Like the U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the embargo against Cuba, the dealings between the United States and Macedonia offer a case study of how domestic politics help drive foreign policy.

To government experts on the region, Macedonia, because of its location, ethnic mix and its history of conflict with Greece, has the potential to ignite an explosion throughout the Balkans, pulling Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria into a war that would threaten the 46-year-old Atlantic alliance.

That's why President Clinton in mid-1993 sent in the U.S. troops as part of a United Nations force, a step he refused to take on behalf of nearby Bosnia or Croatia.

But to Greece and its supporters here, Macedonia is more foe than ally. They object to Macedonia's name and to the country's use of a historic Greek symbol on its flag -- viewing it as a threat by the new nation to re-create the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, including a section of northern Greece bearing the same name.

L Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The new country is nearly destitute and virtually unarmed.

Greece is a well-equipped member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Despite the disparity in power, the Greek government insists that Macedonia represents a grave danger, an issue that has been potent enough to bring hundreds of thousands of anti-Macedonia demonstrators into the streets of Greek cities.

President Clinton and his top advisers were well aware of how sensitive Greek-Americans were on the subject, even before he took office.

His predecessor, George Bush, had withheld a plan to recognize Macedonia in 1992, under election-year pressure from Greek-Americans and their Republican Party allies, recalls Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Bush's national security adviser.

"Nobody has been courageous on this issue," Mr. Scowcroft says now. Three times that year, candidate Clinton assured Greek-American organizations that he wanted the new republic to give up the name Macedonia.

In a statement to the Greek-American community late in the campaign, Mr. Clinton said that if the new nation wanted U.S. recognition, it would have to "satisfy its neighbors and the world community that its intentions are peaceful and abide by the European Community's decision which rejects the use of the name Macedonia."

"A Clinton administration will stand by these principles and ensure that Greece's legitimate concerns are met," Mr. Clinton said.

But by February 1994, half the European Community had agreed to recognize the new country under the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

The U.S. State Department followed suit, pressing President Clinton not only to recognize the young country but to open full diplomatic relations and send an ambassador to the capital, Skopje.

Greek-Americans immediately protested. This, plus opposition from Senator Sarbanes and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, halted the process halfway, according to a number of sources in and out of government.

President Clinton withheld full diplomatic relations, but the United States followed the lead of the European Union and the United Nations by referring to the country as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Mr. Sarbanes, in an interview, said he had opposed taking even those small steps. Had the United States proceeded to formal relations, Macedonia would have little incentive to reach a compromise with Greece, he said.

U.S. needs leverage

"The United States needs to keep some leverage" to help bring about a resolution of the dispute, he said.

At a meeting March 9, 1994, with Greek-American leaders, including Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, Mr. Sarbanes and others, Mr. Clinton said he would not send an ambassador until there had been "progress" in solving Macedonia's problems with Greece and would name an envoy to help the United Nations broker an accord.

Kept in diplomatic limbo, the republic has only a liaison office -- not an embassy -- in Washington. And while Macedonia trades with the United States, U.S. investment there is nearly zero, in part because of lack of government-supplied loans and insurance.

In addition, the republic is squeezed by an economic embargo imposed by Greece.

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