NATO leaders agreed on Wednesday to invite Macedonia to begin accession talks to join the Western alliance, extending its reach in the Balkans in defiance of Russia following a landmark accord with Greece over the ex-Yugoslav republic’s name, APA reports quoting Reuters.
Macedonia will become NATO’s 30th member state, though its people must first back the deal with Greece in a referendum. Under the accord, the official name of the country will become ‘Republic of North Macedonia’.
“We have decided to invite the government in Skopje to begin accession talks to join our alliance,” the leaders said in their summit communique.
The invitation to the small Balkan state of two million people comes despite opposition from Russia, which sees its influence in the region diminishing. A small pro-Russian party in Macedonia also opposes NATO membership.
Leaders said their decision was rooted in a 2008 declaration when Macedonia was invited to join, only to be blocked by Greece over the long-running name dispute.
Greece said the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim on its northern province with the same name.
The government of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev pushed for an agreement with Greece after coming to power in 2017, and the compromise on the name opened the way for Macedonia’s membership of NATO.
Zaev hopes the prospect of NATO membership will prove a powerful incentive for a Yes vote in the planned referendum.