The recognition of Greece’s northern neighbour by its chosen constitutional name of Macedonia is the Bush administration’s first foreign policy move since being re-elected this week and has caught the Greek government by surprise.

The Greek foreign ministry accused Washington of pre-empting ongoing European Union (EU) sponsored talks between the neighbouring countries aimed at resolving a protracted 13-year dispute about the use of the name ‘Macedonia’.

“While we had entered a period of intense activity on the matter of the name, the United States rushed today unilaterally to proceed to the recognition of the neighbouring country under its constitutional name. The expediency of this action is not comprehensible,” Greek foreign ministry spokesman Yiorgos Koumoutsakos said.

Greece has fought against the use of ‘Macedonia’ by the republic since it gained independence from the former Yugoslavian federation in 1991.

Instead, Athens has insisted on calling it by the provisional name of the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM), as adopted by the United Nations.

A northern Greek province, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, also bears the name Macedonia, and Athens has argued that Skopje’s claims on the Macedonian name indicates the republic has territorial ambitions to absorb the province.

“The recognition of FYROM under the name of ‘Macedonia’, with which this country promotes historically unsubstantiated, irredentist claims on our country, has disappointed the Greek people deeply,” Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos said.

The President of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Branko Crvenkovski has hailed the development as a ‘victory’ but tempered the comment by saying that his government was “determined to continue to work on building friendly and neighbourly relations” with Greece.

The European Union’s Dutch presidency has said it does not plan to follow the United States’ lead, dampening fears that more countries will also make the change.

The largely symbolic shift by America has been timed to coincide with a critical referendum on Sunday in which the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will vote on US-backed legislation to empower the country’s ethnic Albanian minority.

The law is a final step in an internationally-brokered peace deal that ended seven months of conflict between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2001.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington hoped the decision to recognise the name would boost the chances of the referendum being passed and further stabilise the republic while improving its democratic progress.