The first direct flight from Skopje to Athens took place on Thursday (1 November) after a 15-year “air embargo” in a sign that the two countries are determined to turn a new page in Balkan politics, after being locked in a diplomatic dispute over Skopje’s official name.
Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA), EURACTIV.com’s media partner in Greece, quoted Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister George Katrougalos as saying it was a moment that brings the two peoples closer.
“And such moments will be many in the future after the completion of the Prespa agreement [name change deal],” Katrougkalos said.
Greece’s Aegean Airlines will operate the Athens-Skopje and Skopje-Athens itineraries twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) during the winter season. The air link between the capitals of the two countries was interrupted in 2003, as the line was then considered economically unprofitable.
Last June, Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras reached a breakthrough deal on a 25-year name dispute and agreed on the name North Macedonia.
In October, the Macedonian parliament approved in principle a proposal to change the country’s name, a move that could unblock its bids to join NATO and start EU accession talks, both long blocked by Greece.
Athens argues that “Macedonia” implied territorial claims to a province in northern Greece of the same name.
In addition, the first meeting of the committee that has undertaken to examine the history books of both countries will take place aiming to ensure that there will be no expressions of irredentism.
An irreversible stage
FYROM’s Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani, who travelled to Athens on the flight, seemed convinced about an “explosion of positive opportunities” in terms of cooperation between the two countries, which would become the new strategic partners in the region.
Osmani also explained that Greece could show the way to his country and the entire Western Balkans when it comes to the EU perspective.
“Following the Thessaloniki agenda in 2003, Greece once again leads the region to the EU, as the lead political mediator with the EU,” Osmani said.
Referring to the lengthy process for the constitutional change in his country, Osmani stressed the most optimistic scenario was the completion of the parliamentary process of constitutional changes by the end of the year.
“This is the most optimistic scenario, but I think we are at an irreversible stage and we are now moving forward with amendments and votes,” he emphasised.
After the approval of the constitutional changes, the name change deal will also have to be ratified by the Greek parliament.
The leftist Syriza-led government seems to have ensured the necessary majority to pass the deal despite the opposition of some lawmakers of the centre-right junior coalition partner (Independent Greeks), the main opposition New Democracy party (EPP) and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok – S&D).
Both the EPP and S&D leaderships have expressed their vocal support to the deal and feel uncomfortable with the stance of their national party members.
Asked if stance of Pasok [the Greek social-democratic party] aligns with the “progressiveness” the S&D is pushing for on the EU level, S&D chief Udo Bullmann told EURACTIV.com:
“We have discussed the issue intensively in our Group and we have clearly established in several statements… that the vast majority of the Socialists and Democrats supports the agreement reached between Zaev and Tsipras.”
“It is not a secret that some of our comrades from Pasok have a different view. Among many other things, being progressive also means discussing issues openly and respecting divergent opinions,” the German politician told EURACTIV.