ATHENS – Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said Greece has no choice but to let the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) keep the word Macedonia in a new composite name, as that country’s Foreign Minister said his people are “Macedonians”.
Kotzias’ anti-nationalist Radical Left SYRIZA has already decided to cede the name and end 25-year-feud that began when a New Democracy Administration allowed the use of the word for the country that broke away from the collapsing Yugoslavia.
And while Greece has barred FYROM’s entry into NATO and the European Union and could continue to do so – while getting no concessions other than for FYROM to say it will change name of its airport and major highway named for Alexander the Great – Kotzias said most of the world already calls that country and Greece should follow.
He and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras want to go along with a proposal by United Nations envoy, American lawyer Matthew Nimetz, to pick a name with a qualifier, such as Upper, Northern or New but include Macedonia.
After two decades of failing to find a solution, Nimetz has picked up the talks with the two countries after a three-year break amid speculation it’s because the US wants to bring FYROM into NATO as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
NATO and the EU are having critical meetings this year and Tsipras said he wants to find a way to let FYROM get into both.
“In life, Alexander the Great … proved we should cut Gordian knots. At some point we should finish with such issues,” Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told Reuters in an interview. Asked what would constitute progress for Athens if the dispute was not settled by June, he said: “It will be settled.”
Kotzias said there was a new momentum to settle the dispute since a more moderate government was elected in Skopje last year under moderate Premier Zoran Zaev, but who still has to deal with hardliners in the opposition as he wants a referendum that Kotzias reportedly told him not to conduct to prevent people in both countries from having a vote.
“We want to solve it. It’s in our national interest and in the interests of the region, for stability, security and economic growth,” Kotzias said without explaining how it would benefit Greece to give away the name of its ancient province Macedonia which abuts FYROM – which so far hasn’t moved to change its Constitution which claims Greek lands, including the second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki.
GOING TO THE IRREDENTIST
Kotzias said FYROM must give up irredentist claims and Greece was working on a draft which could form the basis of discussion. “It won’t be a Greek text containing only our views, nor a done deal-compromise. It will be a text which we consider could be the basis upon which we could start to cooperate,” he said.
Kotzias said he hoped the draft would be ready in February but with more than 140 countries, including the US, already calling FYROM by the name Macedonia, he said Greece has to go along now too even though its junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos won’t and with demonstrations mounting after survey showing 68 percent of Greeks are opposed as well.
SYRIZA, which now has lost the support of the Church of Greece which is backing protests in a Feb. 4 rally in Athens, hasn’t been able to get support for giving away the name Macedonia.
“Let me tell you a paradox. Let’s say we don’t reach agreement today, what name is left?” said Kotzias when asked about that lack of support without mentioning Kammenos’ suggestion that FYROM be forced to accept the name Vardaska.
But Kotzias said instead that, “Internationally, we will be left with plain ‘Macedonia,’ therefore we will have no gain, and in our (bilateral) relations left with ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,’” without explaining why Greece won’t continue to bar FYROM from NATO and the EU and accept a different name.
“Grammatically, it’s a name which still includes the name Macedonia, which is compound and with chronological definition. So we are just fooling ourselves with linguistic acrobatics,” he said, an argument most Greeks aren’t buying amid criticism that SYRIZA, reeling in polls after Tsipras reneged on anti-austerity promises, is trying to deflect attention from the economic crisis and split the major opposition New Democracy.
A MACEDONIAN KNOT
The Conservatives chief Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is in a tough spot because while calling for a unified front over the issue hasn’t said whether he would back giving away the name Macedonia – which his father, the late former Premier Constantine Mitsotakis first did more than 25 years ago.
While some elements in SYRIZA, which provoked even violent anti-government demonstrations while out of power now have denounced protests, Kotzias said he didn’t mind that hundreds of thousands of Greeks marched in Thessaloniki against SYRIZA.
“The demonstrations are signs of democracy. In both countries, people who do not agree to a good compromise … do not have bad intent,” Kotzias told the news agency.
“They are simply people who see the problem from a different angle, without taking into account the historical (background) or future cooperation prospects,” he added. “We have to respect this history and learn from it, but not be trapped in it.”
In comments made to the media following talks with Nimetz, FYROM’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov said citizens of his country had the right to call themselves “Macedonians,” further inflaming the issue.
“No one can deprive us of the right to be Macedonians and to speak the Macedonian language,” Dimitrov said. Nimetz said only that a solution to the name spat was “necessary” and “possible,” echoing what he’s been saying for two decades of failure. “There are differences in the positions of the two countries but I am optimistic,” he said.
FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov said no solution was possible that would compromise his country’s right to call itself Macedonia or take away the national identity of the “Macedonian” people and the dignity of the “Macedonian” language.
Nimetz said he heard nothing during his visit to Greece that would suggest FYROM’s national identity was being disputed.
Greeks say the Slavic population inhabiting FYROM cannot claim to have a Macedonian identity or language which has been a part of Greece’s history since the times of the warrior kings of ancient Macedonia.