Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are moving closer to resolving their 25-year-old name dispute, which should pave the way for Skopje to join NATO this year and possibly remove a major obstacle for its EU integration.
Shuttle diplomacy has shifted into higher gear, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg due in Skopje on Wednesday and Thursday (17-18 January), and Greek and FYROM delegations meeting in New York for another round of UN-mediated talks.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting in New York, United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz said on Tuesday that his proposal to resolve the decades-old name dispute would include the term “Macedonia.”
Greece opposes the one-word name ‘Macedonia’ because its own northern province has the same name and insists on a compound name. Instead, it pushes for a compound name before the word “Macedonia”, which will be used in relation to everyone (erga omnes).
In an interview with Greek Ant1 TV channel, Nimetz said that there was no magic and that it was impossible to come up with something totally new after years of efforts.
“If there was something totally new, we would have found it in the last 25 years,” he underlined, adding that he would come up with a new proposal because it’s a new time. “In the present circumstances people will look at different solutions in a new way and this is what I am trying to do,” he added.
Relations between the two Balkan neighbours have thawed after Social Democrat Zoran Zaev came to power in Skopje and set about undoing the legacy of his nationalist predecessors.
Nimetz said that the name ‘Macedonia’ is already contained in the country’s current name FYROM.
“So the term Macedonia is in the name now in the UN and recognised by Greece with that name [FYROM]. So the name Macedonia is connected with this country and I think we can find a solution that could meet Greek requirements and also satisfy the people in the northern neighbour,” the UN official explained.
At the NATO Bucharest summit in 2008, the then right-wing Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis (New Democracy-EPP) blocked Skopje’s bid to join NATO under its provisional name of FYROM. Its EU accession has also been on hold, in part due to the name dispute.
Greece’s Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgios Katrougalos said the negotiation was open and provided a window of opportunity but struck a note of caution.
“Under no circumstances should its result be taken for granted, and above all, there is no result at the moment. When there is progress, the House will obviously be informed as well as the Greek people,” he said, referring to the Greek parliament.
In another interview with the Greek public television on Monday (15 January), the UN negotiator highlighted the positive contribution of the confidence-building measures taken under Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, as well as the “very constructive” response of Skopje.
Skopje ‘cautiously optimistic’
FYROM’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov was also cautiously optimistic.
“I expect that on Wednesday (Nimitz) will put his ideas and proposals on the table – an initial frame to enable substantial progress and negotiations. After that, we will get involved more directly and we [the two foreign ministers] will head the negotiating teams from both countries,” Dimitrov told BIRN but added:
“Despite all the optimism, we have to accept the possibility that we may not be able to overcome our differences at this time, but we are adamant about keeping at it until we do”.
Russians see US pressure
In Skopje, NATO Secretary General is expected to meet president George Ivanov, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and Defence Minister Radmila Sekerinska.
Analysts say he is expected to encourage Macedonia’s democratic progress and praise its efforts to resolve the name dispute ahead of the NATO summit in July.
In the meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a statement on Monday hinting that the US was pressing for a solution to the name dispute in order to speed up the country’s accession to NATO – a move that would deal a strategic blow to Russia’s ambition of reasserting its influence in the Balkans.
Lavrov said the issue had been dormant for a long time and is emerging again “when the US decided that Skopje should be in NATO”.
Speaking in the European Parliament today, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, presented Bulgaria’s relations with Skopje as an example for the Western Balkans as a whole.
Bulgaria was the first country in the world to recognise Macedonia, and it recognised it under its constitutional name.
The parliament in Skopje ratified on Monday (15 January) a landmark bilateral treaty with Bulgaria, signed last August. The document is expected to settle the outstanding issues between the two Balkan countries. Borissov said the Bulgarian Parliament will ratify the treaty very soon.