DURING his scheduled visit to Tirana on June 10, US President George W Bush may voice support for a Nato invitation to Albania, Croatia and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to join the alliance as early as next year.
Their candidacies would have to receive unanimous approval by the existing 26 members, which include Greece. That makes Nato's sixth expansion a potentially problematic one. Greece does not recognise the last of the three candidates with its constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia, while other Nato members - the US, Turkey and Britain - do.
The subject came to the fore in the Greek media last week because it was (erroneously) suspected that the name issue would have to be settled for Fyrom, as the former Yugoslav republic is inelegantly known, to enter Nato. Greece fears it may come under renewed pressure to accept Fyrom as the Republic of Macedonia, to which public opinion in Greece is overwhelmingly opposed.
Greece has not so far threatened a veto in Nato nor, it seems, will it have to. The republic is currently entered in Nato's Membership Action Plan (an antechamber to membership) as Fyrom, with an asterisk footnoting Turkey's recognition of its constitutional name. The same system has allowed the republic to conduct its business in the United Nations since 1993, pending a final resolution. In theory, Fyrom could become a full Nato member with its temporary name.
In fact, as many as two-thirds of the world's countries may have already recognised Fyrom as the Republic of Macedonia in the absence of an agreement between Athens and Skopje. Greece continues to have an unobstructed relationship with them and is the biggest foreign investor in Fyrom. So it would appear that the status quo is a good enough non-solution for Greece, Fyrom and everybody else.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. When rivals follow separate versions of reality, they become emboldened in their own version of it. Sooner or later opposed views threaten armed conflict, because entire populations - not just overzealous generals - find themselves without any common understanding. As soon as a shift in the balance of power allows, one will impose itself on the other.
The Greeks rightly fear a growing irredentism in a 'Republic of Macedonia', which implies a claim to all of geographic Macedonia, most of which lies in Greece. It also rightly objects to the ethnic invention that must follow the political one, claiming descent from Alexander the Great, whose palaces were unearthed in Greek Macedonia.
But Fyrom also rightly fears breakup if it fails to find a national identity. Its Albanian population, which has an ethnic identity, has already carved out autonomy for itself in the northwest. Deprived of the epithet 'Macedonian', it is doubtful that two-thirds of the country would really know what else to call themselves.
The Macedonia question has been fraught with missed opportunities for a settlement since December 1991, when a disastrous European Union decision - engineered by Germany and supported by the US - to recognise the republics of Croatia and Slovenia triggered the breakup of Yugoslavia.
By a hair's breadth, Fyrom was spared ethnic war of the kind that engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it immediately appeared on the world stage touting itself as the Republic of Macedonia, sparking the ire of Greeks.
Greek nationalism was a match for Macedonian. In 1992 the Greeks made it impossible for the government in Athens to reach a compromise with Skopje using any composite of the M-word. Proposals included Dardania and Peonia, after ancient tribes that had inhabited Fyrom in antiquity, and even Vardarslavia, after the river Vardar that crosses Fyrom. On the more sober soil of the European Commission, Greece's foreign minister, Antonis Samaras, rejected a proposal of 'New Macedonia'.
Privately, Greece agreed to 'New Macedonia' the following year in back room negotiations on how to admit Fyrom to the United Nations. But as soon as the news was leaked in Athens, Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis was threatened by members of his own party with a vote of no confidence.
Now the issue has moved on from bilateral recognitions, which Greece has failed to prevent, to recognition in international bodies. It is in Nato that the next battle will be fought.
Today, either New Macedonia or Slav Macedonia - particularly if they are Latinised in their Slavic pronunciation, Novamacedonia and Slavomacedonia - constitute proposals to which Greece could officially agree. They would still run against public opinion, but they would not be politically ruinous.
But now it is Skopje that is playing for time. In 1992 it was internationally unrecognised, trying to stay out of a Yugoslav civil war and internally unstable. Today it is a UN member, a candidate for Nato and, more academically, the European Union. It has learned to play the card of its internal instability as a negotiating strength with nervous Europeans, who would rather provide Greece with another foreign policy problem than the entire European Union with another Balkan conflict. Fyrom has no reason to hurry, and neither has anyone else.
The conventional path for the international community will be to allow Greece and Fyrom to make all the diplomatic progress they can internationally, but essentially to ignore the substance of their problem. Greeks have fought politics with history before - in seeking the centenary Olympics - and lost. They are unlikely to do better with the same strategy now.