By Nektaria Stamouli and Drew Hinshaw
SKOPJE, Macedonia—This tiny Balkan nation is on track to join the West’s most powerful clubs. First, everyone needs to agree on its name.
The former Yugoslavian province, then known as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, adopted the shortened version when it became independent 27 years ago. That triggered a dispute with neighboring Greece, which is home to a region called Macedonia, named after the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great.
The two countries have quarreled since, and Athens has used its veto power to keep the newcomer out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. But the squabble over the meaning of 2½ millennia of history is nearing a resolution, in part because of the present-day challenge from a resurgent Russia.
After Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, met in Davos for three hours this week, the two leaders announced confidence-building measures. Both sides have expressed optimism about compromising on a new name before the next NATO summit, on July 11.
Among the possibilities: “New Macedonia,” “Upper Macedonia,” or “North Macedonia.”
“We either make this region stable with strong institutions, with functional democracies, or we have a region in a permanent state of crisis,” said Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia’s foreign minister. “Europe and the region will be much better off with the first option.”
More than 70% of Macedonians support EU membership, according to a September poll by the Washington-based International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights.
“If people can live better, I don’t care if they call it Disneyland,” Kiril Pop Hrisotof, a 50-year-old actor who left Macedonia for Ecuador four years ago, said during a recent visit to Skopje, the Macedonian capital, as he weighed whether to move home.
Europe has been shaken by the rise of nationalism, and EU leaders are also concerned about the risk of political instability in the Balkans.
Macedonia isn’t the only country whose hopes of joining the EU are blocked by what leaders of the bloc regard as self-defeating squabbles. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, and neither can enter the EU until that disagreement gets ironed out. In Bosnia, the country’s mostly Muslim west and Christian east are governed by two separate administrations.
“We have seen that Russia has attempted to interfere in processes in this region,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview during a visit last week to Macedonia. Regarding the dispute with Greece over the country’s name, he added, “I’m encouraged by the will I have seen both from the government in Athens and from the government in Skopje.”
NATO officials say Macedonia should be able to swiftly join the world’s biggest military alliance if the name issue is resolved. The EU hopes to welcome the country in by 2025.
Macedonia, a mountainous country that saw tens of thousands of migrants passing through from Greece on their way to Northern Europe in 2015, is considered an important ally by the EU in efforts to control migration flows and counter security threats.
But joining the EU would mainly bring benefits to Macedonia, allowing its two million mostly poor people to travel and work across Europe’s richest nations. “Those on the inside tend to forget how cold it is outside,” said Mr. Dimitrov.
After Macedonia adopted its name at independence in 1991, more than one million Greeks took to the streets the following year in protest.
Athens staged an economic blockade that lasted two years, tipped Macedonia into a recession, and ended only when the country’s then-president appeared on television to announce that Macedonia had no connection to Alexander the Great.
After Greece blocked Macedonia from NATO membership in 2008, relations deteriorated.
In 2011, Macedonia erected an eight-story-tall statue of Alexander the Great. After it also named highways and Skopje’s airport after him, Athens cut off flights to the country.
Now, the situation has changed. A 2015 scandal brought a new government to power in Macedonia. And the Greek prime minister is concerned about hard-right, nationalist movements in Greece’s backyard.
This week, Mr. Zaev announced he would change the name of Skopje’s airport and main avenue, while Mr. Tsipras said Greece’s Parliament will ratify the next stage of an EU agreement with Macedonia to boost trade ties.
To be sure, both leaders will have to contend with opposition back home. Mr. Zaev holds a narrow majority in the parliament, and changing the country’s name requires backing by two-thirds of the parliament.
Not everyone in Macedonia supports a change. Dragan Tanaskoski, a 65-year-old retiree, said he doesn’t care if the country ever joins NATO or the EU. “It’s never going to happen,” he said.
And tens of thousands of people demonstrated in northern Greece recently against any agreement on the name. The government’s junior coalition partner also opposes a deal.
But with Greece’s economy steadier and the goal of exiting its decadelong bailout regime within reach, the time could be ripe.
“Greece would like to come back to be a leader,” said Vladimir Gligorov, an expert on the Balkans at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. “They would like to have more of a say and to show that they can actually play a role.”