Name Dispute Lands Greece & Macedonia In Court

ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- An ongoing name dispute between Greece and Macedonia is to be referred to the International Court of Justice.

Greek officials said on Tuesday they were prepared to defend themselves in court after Macedonia filed a complaint claiming Athens had blocked its bid to join NATO.

The lawsuit marks the latest diplomatic wrangle in the 17-year-old name dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslavian republic.

Macedonia had hoped to join the military alliance earlier this year, but Greece's objections to its northern neighbor's choice of name blocked those aspirations at an alliance summit in April.

Greece wants Macedonia to relinquish its name, which it says is Greek. It also insists that Macedonia's use of the name suggests territorial aspirations on a region of the same name in northern Greece.

In lodging Skopje's complaint with the International Court at The Hague on Monday, Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milosevski said Greece's veto at the April NATO summit was in violation of a 1995 agreement between the two countries.

The agreement, known as the interim accord, aimed to improve relations between the two states, allowing Macedonia to join international organizations under a provisional name -- the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- until the U.N. could mediate a resolution over the name dispute.

The U.N.'s highest judicial organ, the ICJ, said Monday it had received Skopjes' suit. It was not immediately clear, however, when the case would be heard and how long a verdict would take.

Even so, senior officials in Athens said Tuesday that diplomats preparing to defend Greece's positions expected a long and drawn-out legal procedure that could further imperil Macedonia's aspirations of joining international organizations.

"This was a scenario we were expecting," said George Koumoutsakos, spokesman for the Greek foreign ministry. "We are ready to defend our positions, but this will be a long and drawn-out legal procedure and throughout its course, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will remain outside the international organizations it wants to join."

Koumoutsakos said Macedonia's suit was a "tactical move" intended to block ongoing UN mediations aimed at resolving the name dispute.

"It has done everything possible to obstruct the ongoing negotiating process," the spokesman told the state-run NET television network.

Relations between Greece and Macedonia have worsened since NATO's April summit, and a flurry of negotiations brokered by a special U.N. mediator have failed to yield any result on a compromise name.

Earlier this year, a U.N. mediator proposed "Northern Macedonia" as a compromise solution, but negotiations floundered over related issues on how outsiders should refer to the language and nationality of the people in Macedonia.
Wedged between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Kosovo, Macedonia was the only former Yugoslav republic to win independence in the 1990 without bloodshed.