ATHENS – Even as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Greece was close to closing a name deal with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to end a 26-year feud, his government spokesman said it wasn’t and that serious obstacles remained.
“In our continuing talks with our neighbors, there has been significant progress but we are still far away from concluding negotiations and reaching an agreement,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told a press briefing.
That came as Tsipras and FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev were due to meet in Bulgaria during a May 17 meeting of European Union and Western Balkans leaders and as the Greek leader and European Council President Donald Tusk, speaking by phone, contradicted Tzanakopoulos and said prospects were good for an agreement.
Tusk said he was hopeful that Tsipras and Zaev would be able to close ground that their foreign ministers hadn’t been able to do even with brokering from United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who has been trying to find a solution for 20 years and this year resumed talks after a three-year break.
That came amid speculation the United States wants a name deal so that Greece will lift a veto preventing FYROM’s European Union entry hopes as well as getting into NATO with America keen to get another country into the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Tzanakopoulos said the Tsipras-Zaev meeting would be “very useful and important” but the two countries might need a new round of talks to resolve the dispute, at odds with himself.
Tsipras, in sharp decline in popularity polls after constantly reneging on anti-austerity promises, and his anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA are keen to give away the name Macedonia – that of an abutting ancient Greek province – permanently.
A New Democracy government in 1992 allowed the new country to Greece’s north breaking away during the collapse of Yugoslavia to use the name temporarily but then successive FYROM governments began claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city, the major port of Thessaloniki.
It seemed a deal was finally at hand before Zaev said he would not change his country’s Constitution to remove claims on Greek territories and would not agree to any new name, with a qualifier such as Upper Macedonia, for all uses as FYROM prefers to call itself just Macedonia, as do 140 other countries, weakening Greece’s position.
Tzanakopoulos said any deal would be comprehensive and would outline specific targets and a timeframe.
“It won’t be a solution which will be concluded by pressing a button,” he said, repeating that Greece wants a compound name with a qualifier to be used internationally.