Greece-FYROM Name Feud Talks Fast Running Out of Steam

FILE - FYROM's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

What seemed like a done deal – letting the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the word Macedonia, the name of an abutting ancient Greek province – in a new composite to end a 26-year feud has been caught up in wrangling.

The ruling anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was eager to end the dispute even at the cost of ceding away the name Macedonia forever after a New Democracy government in 1992 allowed its use in what was supposed to be a temporary agreement with a new country breaking away during the collapse of Yugoslavia.

That became a battle after successive FYROM governments kept claiming Greek lands, including Macedonia and the second-largest city, the port of Thessaloniki, along with the real Macedonia’s flag and Greek heritage and culture.

But Tsipras and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias were pushing to let FYROM keep the name anyway, even in the face of polls showing 68 percent of Greeks opposed and after two massive protest rallies in Thessaloniki and Athens.

Now, however, after removing the name of Alexander the Great from his country’s international airport and national highway and taking down a statue of the Greek conqueror, FYROM’s embattled Premier Zoran Zaev said he won’t change the Constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greece.

Zaev also suggested he would not agree to a Greek demand that a new name – with Upper Macedonia the leading candidate – be used internationally and for all purposes with 140 countries already calling FYROM by the single name Macedonia, to which Greece objects.

According to the Macedonian News Agency (MIA) which is in FYROM and hasn’t indicated it would also change its name, Zaev told reporters that while there was progress without evidence there was, that stumbling blocks remained in the talks which have seen Kotzias go to FYROM instead of having FYROM officials come to Athens.

“We are quite close to a solution that will confirm the terms of identity, ethnicity and language,” Zaev said, adding that a Constitution change is off the table, a deal breaker for Greece with Tsipras facing immense pressure, including from his junior partner, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who opposes the name giveaway.

Zaev did not rule out the possibility that any solution to emerge from talks will be put to a public referendum before the government makes any commitments, saying that the “question is whether this will happen after a deal or before our NATO and European Union candidacy,” which would, of course, be of immense influence one way or the other.

THE HEAT IS OFF, ON, OFF, ON

United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who has failed for two decades to find a solution, resumed talks after a three-year break amid speculation the United States wants to get a deal done so that Greece will lift vetoes on FYROM’s entry into the European Union and into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.

Nimetz, who is supposed to be impartial, said Greece has no choice but to give in without indicating that Greece could maintain its position by keeping on the vetoes instead of making concessions that would see the name Macedonia lost forever.

Kotzias and FYROM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov have agreed on many issues but the heart of the matter still remains FYROM claims on Greek lands, a concession that if happened would put Tsipras under intense pressure domestically while he’s struggling to deal with several other major fronts including Turkey and the refugee and economic crises.

FYROM  does not want to change references in its constitution to a “Macedonian” language and identity, which Greece does not recognize and that has become a major obstacle in the talks at the FYROM city of Ohrid.

Those have broken off and won’t pick up again until May, a break of several weeks indicating that the momentum has slowed, Kathimerini said, after the two sides had met repeatedly and in rapid order and with Nimetz squeezing hard for a resolution.

The original target date of end of March has already passed and critical EU and NATO meetings this summer are starting to loom, adding to the intensity with Zaev wanting a deal so he can put it to a referendum as he promised although Kotzias reportedly wants him to renege, just as Tsipras did on anti-austerity promises in Greece.