ATHENS – What seemed like a fast-track toward resolving a 26-year feud with Greece over a permanent name for The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been partially derailed with talks slowing to a crawl.
Anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras had already said he would let FYROM keep the name Macedonia – that of an ancient abutting Greek province – after it was given away by a New Democracy administration in 1992.
That drew fury from hundreds of thousands of Greeks who protested in Thessaloniki – which FYROM claims – and in Athens during two massive rallies and as some 68 percent of people in a survey disagreed with Tsipras’ name giveaway plan.
But after removing the name of Alexander the Great – which FYROM also claimed – from the country’s international airport and national highway and taking down a statue of the Greek conqueror, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he’s made enough concessions and won’t change the Constitution which still makes claims on Greek territories, history and culture.
That has brought the talks, restarted by United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer, after a three-year bread after he’s failed for two decades to find a solution to the dilemma.
Greece has blocked FYROM’s hopes of entering NATO and the European Union and the resumption of negotiations came amidst speculation that the United States wants to get FYROM into the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias planned to visit the FYROM capital of Skopje in what would have been the first direct flight between the countries after Greece halted them 12 years ago but has set that aside with the talks grinding to a halt.
US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, who is due to arrive in Athens on March 15, is expected to broach the subject and the State Department said it backed FYROM’s hopes for NATO entry and its “ongoing negotiations with Greece,” seeming to take sides against Greece.
Zaev has offered an international treaty instead after saying his government, facing resistance from nationalists who don’t want any deal, doesn’t have the votes to change the Constitution.
Nimetz has reportedly offered five composite names as a qualifier, such as Upper, Northern and New, but all contain Macedonia and he said Greece has no choice but to give in although it could still bar FYROM’s hopes of getting into NATO and the EU unless another is agreed.