NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Macedonia to solve its 27-year-old dispute with neighboring Greece over the name of the former Yugoslav republic, and proceed with reforms if it wants to join the Western military alliance.
Addressing Macedonia's parliament in Skopje, Stoltenberg said on January 18 that he "strongly welcomes" the Balkan country's efforts to join NATO.
"But while it is good to be ambitious, it is also important to be realistic," he added, warning that "there is still much hard work to be done."
That includes resolving the name issue, which Stoltenberg said "has weighed on this region -- and this country -- for far too long."
Greece's objections to Skopje’s use of the name Macedonia since the country's independence in 1991 has complicated the bids by the former Yugoslav republic to join the European Union and NATO.
Athens says the use of the name Macedonia suggests Skopje has territorial claims to Greece's northern region of Macedonia, which includes the port city of Thessaloniki.
At the UN, Macedonia is formally known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), but the Security Council has agreed that it is a provisional name.
Macedonia has also been admitted to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund under the FYROM moniker.
Most countries, including Russia and the United States, recognize the country's constitutional title, the Republic of Macedonia.
Stoltenberg told Macedonian lawmakers that he welcomes the willingness and resolve Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's government has shown to solve the dispute since he came to power seven months ago.
Both Greek and Macedonian officials have expressed hopes that the issue can be resolved this year.
After meeting with Macedonian and Greek diplomats in New York on January 17, the UN envoy dealing with the matter, Matthew Nimetz, said he was "very hopeful" that a solution was within reach.
But Stoltenberg insisted that NATO membership "is about much more than solving the name issue."
The secretary-general explained that he "means sticking to the path of reform," including increasing defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, as required by the alliance.
He also called for progress on electoral and media reform, as well as greater transparency in government finances.
Stoltenberg hailed measures already passed by Macedonia's government, including the signing of a friendship treaty with neighboring Bulgaria in August aimed at ending years of feuding.
He also commended Macedonia for the "important progress" made on "transparency, accountability, oversight of the intelligence and security agencies, and judicial reform."
In Skopje, Stoltenberg also met with President Gjorge Ivanov, Zaev, as well as the ministers of defense and foreign affairs.
With reporting by dpa, AFP, and AP