ATHENS – The oft-dashed expectations that Greece will reach a name deal with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to end a 26-year-long feud were notched up again when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he thinks there could be an agreement before a June 28 meeting of the European Union.
Greece has blocked FYROM’s hopes of getting into the EU as well as NATO over its Balkan neighbor’s unrelenting claims to Greek lands, including the real Macedonia. But Tsipras’ anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA is eager to give the name away, with a qualifier such as Upper Macedonia, which could be rejected by his junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
After making concessions, such as taking the name of Alexander the Great off his country’s international airport and national road and taking down a statue of the Greek conqueror, FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev has drawn a line in the sand over changing his country’s Constitution to remove claims on Greek lands and said any name deal wouldn’t include domestic use where his country calls itself Macedonia, recognized by 140 countries.
Tsipras, as always about everything even near disasters, said, “I believe we have covered a great part of the distance, but we have more to cover,” although he added the negotiations remained complex and “multilayered,” diplomatic code to mean there’s little real progress.
“We are not yet in a position to speak about a deal,” he said following talks with Zaev on the sidelines of a summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders. “We have reached a critical point but the last steps are always more difficult,” he said, adding that “we have the pressure of historical responsibility but FYROM has the pressure of time,” to get into the EU and NATO.
Zaev said that, “We have discussed one solution to the name dispute that could be acceptable for both sides, but we need to have further discussions in our countries,” Kathimerini said.
The Greek premier was speaking to reporters at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia following talks with Zaev, who earlier said the two leaders had “discussed one (specific) solution to the name dispute that could be acceptable for both sides.” The talks are being kept secret from citizens of both countries.
“We have covered a large part of the distance, but there is still some way to go,” Tsipras said of a number of issues. United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer, has failed to find a solution for nearly 20 years but this year resumed talks after a three-year break amid speculation the US is keen to get FYROM into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
“We are examining all of the details step-by-step, but are not in a position yet to talk about an agreement,” Tsipras said. “We would both like to see a result in time for the [EU] summit in late June.”
Tsipras said he hoped for another meeting with Zaev before the EU summit in June, saying the goal is for a comprehensive deal that would “stand the test of time.”
Zaev said the two sides would continue talking “even if we miss the June deadline,” noting that the purpose of a solution is “to strengthen the dignity and identity of the citizens in both countries.”
If a deal is reached in June, the aim is for it to be sealed with a symbolic meeting of the two premiers in Prespes, northern Greece, near Lake Prespa, which is shared by Greece and FYROM as well as Albania, the paper said.
British Prime Minister met Zaev in the FYROM capital of Skopje and urged the two countries to finally find an answer although 68 percent of Greeks in a survey opposed the name giveaway and Tsipras ignored two massive protests against his plans.