ATHENS – Greece’s anti-nationalist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras reportedly will agree to give away the name Macedonia – an ancient Greek province – to the Former Yugoslav Republic Macedonia on June 12, which would end a 26-year dispute between them.
The new name is expected to be Upper Macedonia, Northern Macedonia or New Macedonia, although reports said another could emerge as well as FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev had made a decision to accept something that would let his country keep the word Macedonia and open the way for entry into NATO, a path that had been blocked by Greek vetoes.
A New Democracy government in 1992 let the new country breaking away from the collapsing Yugoslavia called itself FYROM and use the name of Macedonia in what was supposed to be temporary arrangement before successive FYROM governments kept claiming Greek lands, including the real Macedonia and the second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki.
But Tsipras, reeling in polls along with his Radical Left SYRIZA after reneging on anti-austerity promises, has been keen to reach an agreement despite surveys showing 68 percent of Greeks opposed as well as his own junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos.
With media reports indicating a deal was at hand, there was no word whether FYROM, as Greece had demanded, would change its Constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greek territory and agree to use the new name domestically, instead of continuing to call itself Macedonia, as 140 countries already do.
The push for a deal came from United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who had failed for two decades to find a resolution and who recommended the names – which have been on the table for years.
He picked up the talks after a three-year break amid speculation it was because the US wanted to get FYROM into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans. An agreement would also see Greece lift a veto on FYROM’s European Union hopes.
Zaev and Tsipras spoke by phone for an hour on June 11 in a rushed bid to make a deal with the FYROM Premier later saying a “fair agreement” appeared possible although the negotiations are being held in secret with virtually no information being given to the citizens of either country.
“Probably my optimism about the name issue will be borne out, but it will finally happen when (everything is settled), and I hope that will be (June 12),” Zaev told private Telma TV in an interview.
Zaev has promised a referendum but Tsipras, feeling the heat of vociferous opposition, has not called for one in Greece as he did in 2015 over austerity measures. Greeks backed his call to reject austerity measures demanded by the country’s international creditors but he reneged on his supporters too and went ahead with more harsh measures.
“Our ultimate goal is to reach a fair agreement,” he added.
Tsipras’ office said the talks with Zaev were conducted “in a good atmosphere” and would be repeated on June 12 to settle the terms.
Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told Kontra TV that a “decisive step” was taken to end the dispute, adding that three names were still on the table and that Zaev had already made a decision.
Referring to the talk, a close aide to Tsipras said “their communication via diplomatic channels was constant in recent days and necessary in order to keep the process alive and so that certain issues move ahead,” said Kathimerini.
The two men reportedly agreed on a series of changes to the text agreed by their two foreign ministers, Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov, who is a member of a nationalist party in a coalition with Zaev’s ruling party.
According to reports, the main topic discussed was how the new name for FYROM will be used. Tsipras earlier said he was closing on a deal to preserve Greece’s sovereignty and history without explaining how that would be accomplished by giving away the name of a province that was the birthplace of Alexander the Great – who had also been claimed by FYROM before Zaev removed the name of the Greek conqueror from his country’s international airport and national highway and took down a statue of him.
An ANEL lawmaker, Dimitris Kammenos, said the party would never accept giving away tne name Macedonia but he spoke before the Defense Minister and party leader was to give his position – which has been contradictory, also opposing giving away the name Macedonia while saying he wouldn’t stand in the way of a deal.
But Dimitris Kammenos said, “If we give Skopje the term Macedonia and the ‘Macedonian’ language this will be a historical and monumental defeat for Greece,” and political defeat.
“It goes without saying that we would vote against such an agreement,” he added, saying that this issue could be among those on a list that eventually separate the two coalition partners although Panos Kammenos, while barking defiance previously, has done Tsipras’ bidding to stay in power.
It wasn’t clear whether Tsipras would have votes from rival parties for a deal that would let Panos Kammenos vote against it and see it pass anyway and be able to stay in the coalition and in power with polls showing he has no chance of getting back into Parliament in the next elections.