Sides with Greece against Macedonia's own name
NJ Start Ledger
WASHINGTON -- Robert Menendez has never been known to shy away from a political brawl, even one that is thousands of miles from New Jersey, has its roots in antiquity and touches the raw nerves of two sovereign nations.
From his perch on Capitol Hill, the New Jersey senator has injected himself into a bitter dispute over the name of a small Balkan nation -- a country that since independence in 1991 has called itself the Republic of Macedonia, and which neighboring Greece insists should be known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM.
Menendez, siding with Greece and upset that the Bush administration in 2004 recognized the republic by its chosen name, is holding up the president's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Philip Reeker.
Although he won't confirm or deny it, interest groups on both sides and sources on Capitol Hill say Menendez, a Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) anonymously placed a hold on Reeker's confirmation to pressure the administration and the Macedonians about the naming issue.
What's in the name? Plenty.
For Greece, using the name of the Republic of Macedonia implies the landlocked country of 2 million people has territorial claims to the northern Greek region also known as Macedonia, and represents a serious threat that goes well beyond symbolism. For its neighbor, it's a matter of national pride, sovereignty and self-identity.
The contentious dispute has led Greece to veto Macedonia's entry into NATO and has been the subject of lengthy but unsuccessful diplomatic negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations that included talks in New York last week.
GREEK SUPPORTERMenendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has supported Greece's interests including on matters involving Cyprus and Turkey going back to his time as a congressman, and was an active member of the House's Hellenic Caucus.
He said he has had numerous meetings with members of New Jersey's "significant Greek-American community" and feels strongly that resolving the name issue is important to the stability of the region and American interests.
In an interview last week he said the use of the Republic of Macedonia name has created tension in an important region of the world, and is understandably upsetting Greece, a key U.S. ally.
"Beyond the name, there are significant issues of culture, ethnicity and a breakaway element for other parts of the Balkans who want to be recognized as Macedonia when Macedonia is within Greece," he said.
During Reeker's confirmation hearing last month, Menendez said he has seen "school textbooks and maps that circulate in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia showing parts of Greece belonging to the so-called 'Greater Macedonia.'"
Another affront to the Greeks, he and others have pointed out, involves the recent naming of a Macedonian airport in the capital city of Skopje after Alexander the Great -- someone the Greeks consider to be their warrior king.
"This is risky business," Menendez said. "And the Bush administration has created part of the problem by recognizing the name of the Republic of Macedonia and by not working vigorously to solve the name issue."
Reeker, formerly a counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, testified at his confirmation hearing that he has "seen reports of both sides in the Greece-Macedonia dispute accusing each other of taking actions or making statements that have inflamed the issue of the name.
"It's a difficult problem. It's an emotional problem," he said. "But it is one that can be solved. So we're encouraging both sides to show greater flexibility, creativity, cooperation and do what is needed to find a solution."
Metodija Koloski, president of the United Macedonian Diaspora, an international advocacy organization, maintained that Greece's stance has been unreasonable. He accused Menendez of refusing to meet with Macedonian-Americans from New Jersey, taking a narrow one-sided view, and arbitrarily blocking Reeker's confirmation. Koloski speculated that Menendez was seeking to win Greek-American votes and campaign contributions.
"He should be representing the views of all his constituents, not just the Greek-American community," Koloski said.
NUMBERS DON'T LIEThe U.S. Census estimates nearly 70,000 New Jersey residents have at least some Greek ancestry, and about 5,500 have Macedonian ancestry.
Koloski noted that 124 countries recognize Macedonia by its constitutional name.
"Greece wants Macedonia to change its identity. It wants it to change its passports and change its constitution. It's too much to be asked -- one country dictating to another country what its name should be," Koloski said.
The Very Rev. Father Slobodan Petkovski of the Saints Kiril and Metodij Macedonian Church in Cedar Grove said Menendez' attitude is an affront to Macedonia's people and national identity.
"I don't know why he is doing it. He is welcome to work with the Greeks, but why not the Macedonians?" he said.
The same view was expressed by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8th Dist.), who called Menendez' approach "absolutely appalling."
The Greek-American community sees the matter quite differently.
Nick Larigakis, executive director of the American Hellenic Institute, said Menendez has been "acting in the best interests of the United States to help create stability in a region where Greece is an important player."
"The issue is not just the name. It is what the name implies and how that will be interpreted, which Greece sees as an attempt to claim it territory," Larigakis said.
Yiorgos Chouliaras, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Washington, said he could not comment on internal U.S. politics, but added that Menendez' views have been consistent in holding that "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia must stop its hostile propaganda and work for a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue."
He said Greece would accept a "compound name" that included Macedonia. Last week, Macedonia was reported to have rejected four name proposals from the UN negotiator, including the names Northern or Upper Macedonia.
Koloski, the president of the United Macedonian Diaspora, said Macedonia has considered adopting a compound name for use in international organizations like the UN or European Union. But he said it has rejected the Greek idea of changing its constitution and passports or altering its name for dealings with nations that already recognize the Republic of Macedonia.