BRUSSELS (AP) — The small Balkan country of Macedonia took a big step Wednesday toward becoming the 30th member of NATO, the world's biggest military alliance.
In a move that marked the end of a long dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name, and less than two decades after NATO deployed troops to the country as it teetered on the brink of civil war, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov led an "accession protocol" signing ceremony at the alliance's Brussels headquarters.
"This is a historic occasion," Stoltenberg told NATO country envoys before they put pen to paper. "We have waited for you to join our family for a long time."
He said the signing ceremony marks the start of the ratification process. Montenegro, the last country to join NATO, had to wait about a year for all members to formally endorse its accession protocol.
Greece is set to become the first to do so this week. Macedonia will then start calling itself North Macedonia and will join under that name, possibly late this year or in early 2020.
"I'm confident that this process will proceed smoothly," Stoltenberg said.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his NATO counterparts are due to hold a summit in London in December. The meeting, to mark NATO's 70th anniversary, would provide a perfect occasion to formally welcome North Macedonia should the ratification process be completed.
Visibly moved by the moment, Dimitrov said the ceremony "is the result of the work of many generations," and he thanked the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers for overcoming the name dispute.
"This was not inevitable, this was not even very likely to happen," he said, lauding it as proof that "the impossible is actually doable and possible."
Quoting the British military officer and writer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, Dimitrov said: "Nothing is written until we write it. We can change our destiny, we can seize opportunities and I think this is what we have done."
Greece blocked Macedonia's NATO membership for a decade over the name dispute. Athens saw the former Yugoslav republic's name as a threat to its own administrative region of Macedonia.
Macedonia has been a major contributor to NATO operations, notably in Afghanistan. The membership move comes some 18 years after the alliance deployed troops in Macedonia to collect weapons held by ethnic Albanian rebels to help avert a civil war there.
Macedonia's ruling Social Democrats described the signature as a "historic act" and "historic success" for the country and its citizens.
"After years of isolation, regression and uncertainty, Macedonia sits at the same table with the states of the democratic world," the party said in a statement.
It underlined that NATO membership means "guaranteed security and stability, security at our borders but also brings significant economic benefits for citizens, investment growth, more money, increased economic growth."
Before the ceremony, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told national broadcaster "MTV" that the name dispute with Greece was "a burden that was dragging us down" for decades.
Zaev said his government will focus now on the economy, rule of law, better health and education and higher wages.
Konstantin Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. AP writer Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.