Macedonia, Greece seek to settle name dispute

Greece and Macedonia will take part in UN-mediated talks aimed at resolving their dispute over the name “Macedonia”. (AFP pic)

VIENNA: The Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers meet in Vienna on Friday for UN-mediated talks aimed at translating progress in their bitter dispute over the ex-Yugoslav republic’s name into a deal.

The long-running dispute, which has sparked emotional protests by thousands of people in recent weeks in both countries, has raged since Macedonia became an independent country in 1991.

Greece objects to its northern neighbour’s name, arguing it suggests that Macedonia has claims to the territory and heritage of Greece’s historic northern region of the same name.

In light of the Greek objections, the country joined the United Nations in 1993 with the unwieldy name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short.

The dispute has also hampered Macedonia’s hopes of joining the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Last year, UN mediator Matthew Nimetz was able to relaunch the process, meeting both sides separately and together.

Several possible names have been doing the rounds, with “Upper Macedonia” the most frequently cited

There have been signs of progress, with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov saying last week they were looking for an “honourable compromise”.

Macedonia in February made a concession by renaming the capital’s Skopje Alexander the Great Airport as International Airport Skopje.

The motorway linking Macedonia with Greece, which was also formerly named after Alexander the Great, has also just been renamed the Friendship Highway.

The UN’s Nimetz said in January that he was “very optimistic the process is going in the right direction”.

Athens and Skopje have a “common resolve… to solve the problem,” Macedonian political scientist Nano Ružin, a former NATO ambassador close to the government, told AFP.

But both countries’ governments are facing the opposition of nationalists who refuse any concession over the issue.

Kotzias has received threats and a survey Sunday showed that seven out of 10 Greeks would be hostile to a name including the term Macedonia or a derivative.

In Skopje, the nationalist right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party could use the issue to weaken the government, which relies on a thin majority, although its current leaders are more moderate now.

Athens wants the change of name to be backed with a constitutional change, and for it be applied on the “erga omnes” (“towards all”) legal principle, meaning universal use inside and outside Macedonia.

Even with the support of minority parties made up of people of Albanian descent, the Social Democrats who lead Macedonia’s government do not have a majority to pass a constitutional change in parliament.

Before the meeting, Kotzias said that his desire for constitutional change should be translated into the “international agreement we will conclude at the UN, and the inter-state agreement we will sign.”

Ruzin sees this as the Greeks leaving the door open to a staged process, with the possibility of leaving the constitutional change for later.