Bush sees NATO future for Macedonia and all Balkans
By Matt Spetalnick and Igor Ilic
ZAGREB (Reuters) - President George W. Bush reassured Macedonia on Saturday that the United States believed it should join NATO as soon as possible.
The Macedonians walked out of this week's NATO summit 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.
In a speech in Croatia, which was invited on Thursday to join the Western military alliance with Albania, Bush said he hoped Macedonia would join NATO, along with former Yugoslav republics Bosnia, Montenegro and perhaps Serbia.
"We look forward to Macedonia taking its place very soon in this great alliance for freedom," he said in a speech attended by Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
"America's position is clear: Macedonia should take its place in NATO as soon as possible."
Montenegro and Bosnia should also advance towards NATO membership, Bush said. "We hope that soon a free and prosperous Serbia will find its rightful place in the family of Europe and live at peace with its neighbors."
The rebuff to Macedonia at the NATO summit could destabilize the ethnically fragile republic and would be grist to the mill of U.S. adversaries in the Balkans, analysts said.
Nationalists in Serbia's government are hostile to NATO, which they blame for the loss of Kosovo. Kosovo's independence declaration in February was recognized by the United States and its main European Union allies.
Russia is Serbia's main ally in its campaign to reverse that recognition and block the deployment of an EU supervisory mission to the new 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 capitalize 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 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 from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, 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 after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
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.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Zoran Radosavljevic; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Robert Woodward)