ZAGREB (Reuters) – President George W. Bush assured Macedonia on Saturday that the United States wants it in NATO as soon as possible, along with other former Yugoslav republics.
In a speech in Croatia marking its formal invitation to join NATO this week, Bush said he looked forward to seeing all Balkan candidates join the Western alliance which marks its 60th birthday next year.
“America’s position is clear: Macedonia should take its place in NATO as soon as possible,” he said in a speech attended by Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
The Macedonians walked out of a NATO summit in Romania when Greece blocked their invitation because of a long-running dispute over the country’s name, which is that of Greece’s northern province, birthplace of Greek hero Alexander the Great.
Bush welcomed progress by Montenegro and Bosnia towards NATO membership. Along with Croatia and Albania, which also received formal invitations from the NATO summit in Bucharest this week, NATO’s Balkan enlargement would take the alliance to 31 members.
The president said he hoped that “soon a free and prosperous Serbia will find its rightful place in the family of Europe, and live at peace with its neighbours”.
NATO is “open to all countries in the region”, he said.
Serbia, once the dominant power in the Yugoslav federation, was bombed by NATO in 1999 and its hostility to the West has resurfaced over U.S. backing for Kosovo’s independence. A mob set fire to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade six weeks ago.
Serb nationalists now look to Russia for support for a campaign to reverse Western recognition and block deployment of an EU supervisory mission to the predominantly Albanian state.
The U.S. president was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev later on Saturday at Putin’s Black Sea holiday home, for talks likely to cover a range of controversial issues.
Bush hopes to capitalise on a less strident tone struck by Putin at the NATO summit, where the Russian leader complained of what he called emerging threats to Russia’s security but also implored alliance leaders: “Let’s be friends, guys.”
Bush’s visit to Croatia, which was aided by the United States in the final phase of its 1991-95 war for independence against Serb forces, put the president among grateful Balkan allies with no major problems to be thrashed out.
Popular support for NATO membership in Croatia increased significantly this year as ethnic tensions in the Balkans resurfaced in the wake of Kosovo’s independence.
Speaking in Zagreb’s historic St. Mark’s square in front of a 15th century church, Bush said Croatia had known tyranny, war and occupation in its past.
“Americans admire your courage and admire your persistence, and we look forward to welcoming you as a partner in NATO,” he told the Croats.
“Henceforth, should any danger threaten your people, America and the alliance will stand with you and no one will be able to take your freedom away,” he said, to loud cheers.