U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has praised Macedonia's efforts to resolve its decades-old name dispute with Greece, saying he hoped the Balkan country would soon be able to join NATO.
"We commend your work with Greece to resolve this issue and I am hopeful it will bear fruit soon," Mattis told Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska as she visited the Pentagon on May 1.
"We don't wish to see you stopped at NATO's doorstep," Mattis said, noting that a "prudent decision" was made at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 to invite Macedonia to join NATO "as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached with Greece."
Mattis also applauded what he described as "Macedonia's resistance to Russia's malign influence in the Balkans," saying that he welcomed Skopje's "continued leadership by example in this region."
The long-running name dispute between Macedonia and Greece dates back to 1991, when Skopje declared independence following the collapse of communist Yugoslavia.
Athens objects to Macedonia's name because it has its own northern province called Macedonia and fears it may imply territorial ambitions.
The dispute has hampered Macedonia's ambitions to join both the European Union and NATO.
But negotiations to resolve the dispute have made progress since Macedonia recently agreed to change the name of Skopje's Alexander the Great airport to Skopje International Airport, in a goodwill gesture to Greece.
The highway linking Macedonia with Greece has also been renamed the Friendship Highway.
Several possible new names have been floated, with Gorna Makedonija or Upper Macedonia, the most frequently mentioned.
Sekerinska thanked Mattis and called for U.S. support for Skopje's NATO bid.
"We have proven to be a dedicated and reliable partner and we aim to be also such an ally as a member of the alliance," she said.
With reporting by AP and Reuters