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Macedonia: Name Dispute Drags On

Skopje seems confident it can weather the storm, but some fear Athens may soon take things up a notch.
By Boris Georgievski

The Macedonian government has rejected a United Nations proposal that the country be renamed “Republika Makedonija – Skopje”, as a compromise solution to a 14-year-old dispute with neighbouring Greece.


But politicians in Athens continue to insist that the preferred choice, Macedonia, signifies ambitions on the northern Greek territory bearing the same name.


And some observers warn that if the issue is not addressed, Greece may even take concrete action by trying to block Skopje’s chances of joining the European Union and NATO.


Macedonian foreign minister Ilinka Mitreva said earlier this week that her country would not accept the change to its name for use in international talks, as proposed by UN special envoy Matthew Nimitz.


But Mitreva added that Skopje would continue to take part in discussions aimed at finding a compromise name to be used only in bilateral communications with Greece.


The two sides have been negotiating under UN auspices in New York since 1995, having first fallen out over the issue when Skopje declared independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.


Currently, the EU, NATO and the UN – under pressure from Greece –officially use the convoluted term “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. But Macedonians strongly resent this clumsy terminology, as well as the equally unwieldy acronym FYROM.


Greek officials had welcomed Nimitz's proposal as a basis for compromise.


“In accordance with this proposal, the name ‘Republika Makedonija – Skopje’ - written in this way, untranslated - will be adopted for international use,” said Greek foreign minister Petros Molyviatis late last week.


And the proposal even grabbed headlines in Greece, where the media have been awash with speculation that it might bury the name dispute once and for all.


But Mitreva’s response cut the rejoicing short, with her insistence that “for international communications, the only acceptable solution is our constitutional name - Republic of Macedonia”.


Analysts say Greek eagerness to close the dispute reflects increasing nervousness in Athens, especially following the recognition of Macedonia under its chosen name by the United States last year.


There is a growing “fear that other countries might follow the US example”, explained Denko Maleski, who in the past has held the post of Macedonian foreign minister and has worked as the country’s ambassador to the UN.


Macedonian officials are adamant that their country will not give in to Greek pressure, and will never accept a compromise name for anything other than use in bilateral talks.


“[The Greek politicians] realise that they have less and less support in this imposed dispute,” one senior foreign ministry official told IWPR.


The official noted that besides the US, 109 other countries – including Russia and China – have also recognised Macedonia under its chosen name.


He said Greece was simply trying to make it appear to the international community that Athens was constructively seeking a solution, while the Macedonian side was unwilling to compromise.


Macedonian prime minister Vlado Buckovski says his country already made a big compromise when it agreed to find a mutually acceptable name for use in bilateral communications with Greece.


“After all, we are talking about Macedonia`s name here, not the name of Greece,” he told journalists at a press conference in Skopje earlier this week.


As a sign of how seriously Greece takes the issue, in 1993 Athens imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia and closed their shared border, inflicting huge damage on the poor, landlocked country.


The sanctions were only lifted in 1995, after Macedonia agreed to amend its constitution, saying that it had no territorial claims on its neighbours, and changed the design of its flag, which the Greeks felt was too closely associated with their national hero, Alexander the Great.


Macedonian officials say Greece may have purposely tried to push through the latest proposal in the knowledge that Skopje is currently made vulnerable by its plans to seek membership of the EU and NATO – both of which already count Greece amongst their members.


Athens has already threatened to veto Skopje’s applications to both organisations if the name issue is not resolved.


Brussels has so far avoided getting involved in the controversy – and its sorting out has so far not been mentioned as a condition for Macedonia joining the EU.


“The name dispute should have been resolved a long time ago,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said recently. “I hope both sides in the following months will find a solution.”


Skopje officials seem confident that the issue will not obstruct their country’s EU membership bid.


“A Greek veto on Macedonia`s entry to the EU is an extreme measure that we doubt Greece would undertake,” an official from the Macedonian foreign ministry told IWPR.


Dimitar Mircev, a former diplomat, said that even if Greece did try to use the issue to prevent Macedonia from joining the EU and NATO, they would probably fail, since “the name dispute has never been a condition for membership of these institutions.”


While dismissing the latest compromise solution, Macedonian prime minister Buckovski has been careful to insist that talks will continue.


The latest setback “does not mean the process to find a mutually acceptable solution has stopped”, he told journalists at a press conference in Brussels after a meeting with Javier Solana this week.


“This should not be disappointing for Nimitz. It was just another good attempt, which was unacceptable for us,” said Buckovski.


In the meantime, Mircev told IWPR that time is on Macedonia’s side, “There is no need to rush. If we managed for 14 years we can wait a bit more.”


Boris Georgievski is a journalist with the Skopje daily Utrinski vesnik.


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