The world court ruled Monday that Greece was wrong to block Macedonia's bid to join NATO in 2008 because of a long-running dispute over the fledgling country's use of the name "Macedonia."
In a 15-1 ruling, the court found that Greece's veto breached a 1995 deal under which Greece had agreed not to block Macedonia's membership in international organizations if it used the name "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" while the matter was submitted to U.N. mediation. More than 15 years later, discussions over the name are still unresolved.
Although the question of Macedonia's name is sometimes seen as superficial by outsiders, it is a matter of deep concern for both sides. The young country has used the name in one form or another since shortly after World War II, when it was a province of Yugoslavia, but Greece sees use of the name as historically inaccurate at best and a potential threat to its territorial integrity at worst.
Monday's victory is largely symbolic since the court didn't order Greece to alter its stance in the future.
The U.N.'s highest court, formally known as the International Court of Justice, found that the ruling itself "constitutes appropriate satisfaction" for The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, said presiding Judge Hisashi Owada, reading the written decision.
But the ruling does lends moral weight to the small country's protests that Greece's moves to block it from joining NATO and the European Union are unfair.
Ordinary Macedonians appeared pleased.
"Finally, a little justice for Macedonia!" said housewife Marina Stevcevska, 49, after hearing of the ruling.
"After years of disappointments for this country, finally we have received a good news, somebody to tell Greece that it is doing wrong, that is enough", she said.
Meanwhile, about 150 members of an ultra-right group in held a demonstration in central Athens protesting the court decision, waving flags and chanting nationalist slogans. A few dozen people took part in a similar protest in the northern city of Thessaloniki, shouting "Greece belongs to the Greeks."
Outside the courtroom, Greece's Dutch Ambassador Ioannis Economides urged Macedonia "to resist using today's decision to subvert the negotiations," and NATO Chief Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels that Macedonia still won't be admitted to the alliance until the name issue is resolved.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said Greece should "respect the judgment of the International Court of Justice."
"For the time being, we do not want to look through the categories of winners and losers," he said, promising to continue the negotiations.
Though colloquial use of calling the country "Macedonia" has grown, U.N. documents refer to it consistently as "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," while Greece refers to it by the acronym "FYROM" _ apparently to avoid even mentioning the word "Macedonia" in relation to the country. The country calls itself the "Republic of Macedonia."
U.N. envoy Matthew Nimetz said Monday he had urged both countries "to view this event as an opportunity to think constructively about their mutual relationship and to consider a renewed initiative to reach a definitive solution to the 'name' issue."
There was little opposition from Athens to the Yugoslav territory using the name Macedonia until it declared independence in 1991. The country occupies some of the territory in the region that was known as Macedonia after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.
But over the centuries the region has undergone such complete ethnic and cultural changes as to render use of the name nonsensical, Greece argues _ not to mention that Greece has its own province called Macedonia.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is now composed mostly of a people who speak a Slavic language similar to Bulgarian, not Greek _ and Bulgaria was a bitter military enemy to Greece in the first half of the 20th century.
Greece is concerned that if the country uses the name Macedonia, that will eventually lead it, possibly together with Bulgaria, to stake claims to parts of modern Greece.
Macedonia has been friendly to NATO since its independence, allowing U.S. troops to use its territory as a staging ground during the Yugoslav wars. NATO clashed with Serbia under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, even as Greece sympathized with Belgrade due to historical strategic and religious ties.
Under the 1995 interim agreement, Greece dropped economic sanctions against Macedonia in exchange for the temporary compromise on the name. Macedonia also stopped using an ancient Macedonian flag and amended articles of its constitution which could be seen as hinting at claims to Greek territory.
AP reporters Elena Becatoros, Nicholas Paphitis and Derek Gatopoulos contributed from Athens and Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje, Macedonia.