With just two days to go before the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s summit in Bucharest, a decision is pending on whether one, two or three west Balkan countries will be invited to join the alliance.

Croatia, Macedonia and Albania are all seeking invitations at the three-day summit that begins on Wednesday. But an arcane dispute over Macedonia’s name could lead to a veto from Greece. That could torpedo Albania, over which there remain doubts about whether it is truly ready for entry.

The US wants all three countries to join Nato in order to ensure regional stabilisation after Kosovo’s western-backed independence declaration from Serbia in February.

Nato membership could also help Albania and Macedonia move closer to a place in the European Union – a hurdle Croatia expects to clear within two years.

Only Croatia, however, feels assured of receiving an invitation to join Nato, with George W. Bush, US president, scheduled to visit Zagreb as soon as the summit wraps up. During six years as a Nato candidate, the ex-Yugoslav country of 4.5m people had carried out the required defence reforms and co-operated with international efforts to catch its 1990s war crime suspects, said Pjer Simunovic, assistant foreign affairs minister.

“The final issue was public support,” Mr Simunovic told the FT. More than 60 per cent of Croatians support Nato entry, a significant reversal of past scepticism.

Parliamentary ratifications by the 26 current Nato members and by each invited entrant would take months, but the process could be completed early next year, maybe at the alliance’s 60th anniversary in Berlin next year, he said.

All three west Balkan prospects have contributed forces to Nato’s Afghanistan mission. Croatia’s 200-strong troop contingent operated under “no caveats”, meaning there were no restrictions on where its troop could go, Mr Simunovic said. A Croat infantry company of about 100 is soon to take up United Nations peacekeeping duties in the Middle East.

Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia have been candidates for longer but are not as prepared as Croatia, diplomats say.

Yet the only real sticking point is the vow by Greece, a long-time Nato member, to veto Macedonian accession over the name dispute.

Greece, whose conservative government has a one-seat parliamentary majority, insists Macedonia change its name, which is also the name of a northern Greek province. It has suggested alternatives that are apparently unsatisfactory to Macedonia.

Exasperated diplomats suggest the impasse boils down to a dispute over an adjective. UN mediation efforts driven by the US have produced no agreement on a name modification, leaving bargaining to continue in Bucharest.

Skopje accuses Athens of turning a back-burner identity argument into a regional security pitfall, as Nato membership would lower tensions with its ethnic Albanian minority.

“Every Nato member, including Greece, says it’s in the alliance’s interest to invite us,” said Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia’s co-ordinator for Nato accession. The country of 2m people could be invited with a later accession date, giving Greece “a few extra months to see reason”, an adviser in Skopje says. Macedonia says that, although it is not a member of the alliance, it has sent four per cent of its forces on Nato missions, nearly 10 times the proportion Greece contributes.

Albania, meanwhile, fears being coupled with Macedonia and excluded. “The rules are that membership is offered on the basis of individual merit. Albania should not be held hostage to the name dispute,” says Lulzim Basha, foreign minister.

The once-Stalinist country of 3.5m people and a military of 16,000 would be the weakest link in Nato terms. Fears about the poor state of its military were underscored in mid-March when an explosion of obsolete munitions outside Tirana caused 21 deaths and more than 200 injuries. Albania still needs to dispose of 100,000 tonnes of old ordnance to meet Nato pre-accession targets.

Albanian troops serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, while a small group is preparing for an EU mission to Chad.

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