Macedonia to hold referendum on new name

Vergina sun.jpg

Macedonia said it was ready to agree to a proposal by the UN's special envoy to change its name and thus resolve a long-standing dispute with Greece, but that the decision would have to be approved in a nationwide referendum.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said that his country could agree to UN envoy Matthew Nimetz's proposal to rename the country "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)".

Skopje is the capital of the small country and its name coincides with Greece's northernmost province, an issue which has led Athens to block the country's EU accession talks (see 'Background').

Milososki also says that his letter, which was reportedly sent two weeks ago, was intended to counter accusations by Athens that his country had shown no flexibility in attempting to resolve the long-standing dispute.

However, Macedonia's foreign minister insisted that the new name could be adopted only after a popular referendum. He also said that his country had ditched plans to adorn a bridge in the capital with the Vergina Sun, an ancient Greek symbol unearthed in the northern Greek region of Macedonia.

Unlike Macedonia, Greece has not tabled a single compromise, Milososki reportedly argues in his letter to the UN secretary-general.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski explained that a referendum should be held because neither him, nor his government had a mandate to decide whether or not the country's name should be changed.

"So we decided to adopt a decision, and let the people decide if it is a good or bad proposal," Gruevski was quoted as saying.

Gruevski also said that the country was certain to hold early elections. Last January, the socialist opposition in Macedonia announced it was leaving the country's parliament, in protest against a move by the centre-right government to block the bank accounts of several media companies.

It remains to be seen if the name "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" would be seen as acceptable by Greece. In particular, it remains unclear what citizens of the "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" would be called.

The nationalist positions of Nikola Gruevski do not augur well for the outcome of any referendum on changing the country's name, EU diplomats told EURACTIV.

Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the infamous 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest (see EURACTIV's LinksDossier on 'EU-Macedonia relations').

Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – the Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece vowed to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.

Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the name dispute has led to an impasse in the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.

According to diplomatic sources, a name with a geographic connotation – defining Macedonia more as a region than a country – would be acceptable to Greece.

Greeceinsists that the new geographic name should be used in "relations with everyone," rejecting Skopje’s suggestion that a name could be kept "for internal use".

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