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What you don't know about the NATO summit

Macedonia wants in.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy walks with U.S. President Barack Obama near their wives Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama in Strasbourg, eastern France, ahead of bilateral talks as leaders gather to mark the 60th anniversary of NATO on April 3, 2009. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

ATHENS — As NATO meets today in Strasbourg, France to celebrate its 60th birthday — and to hash out divisions over U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan — one aspiring member, Macedonia, is left unhappily on the outside looking in.

Albania and Croatia officially joined the club Wednesday, extending the security organization’s reach into the formerly communist Balkans. But the accession of Macedonia was blocked last year by Greece due to a nearly two-decade-long dispute over the young country’s name.

It’s no mere linguistic quarrel — unresolved, the International Crisis Group recently warned, it “risks derailing the main strategy of both NATO and the EU (European Union) for stabilizing Macedonia.”

At issue is the name “Macedonia” and who has the right to claim the historic legacy of Alexander the Great, the 4th century B.C. military leader. The southernmost region of what was once Yugoslavia now calls itself the Republic of Macedonia, although under a compromise with Greece it is officially known in international institutions like the United Nations as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.

But Greece, which has its own region of Macedonia that is the site of Alexander’s birthplace, claims its Slavic neighbor is trying to steal its heritage — and even perhaps even part of its territory.

“Both sides claim a monopoly on the Macedonian identity,” said Evangelos Kofos, a Balkans expert at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and a native of the Greek region of Macedonia. “And issues of people’s identities certainly are explosive if they are not handled properly.”

At the Alexander the Great restaurant in the Athens neighborhood of Metaxourgeio, Alexander Vlachos dishes up bits of history to tourists along with Greek specialties like mousaka and dolmades. Like most of his compatriots, he sees Alexander as one of the great heroes of ancient Greek culture and said the Greek government was right to veto Macedonia’s entry into NATO.

Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis would have had to face the wrath of voters if he hadn’t.

“He did the right thing. If Karamanlis had not used the veto, he would have had to go to the jungle of Brazil and hide,” Vlachos said.