With growing dissension and open bickering in Greece, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias is working with his counterpart in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Nikola Dimitrov, to reach an agreement on a permanent name for Greece’s neighbor.
A Greek government in 1992 under then-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis agreed to let its new northern neighbor, which broke away from Yugoslavia to take the name FYROM until a permanent name could be agreed but all talks have failed.
Dimitrov told the news agency Reuters the two foreign chiefs will lead a working group trying to find an answer although reports have already indicated that the word Macedonia will still be included in any composite name, setting off fury among Greek nationalists and rejection of that idea by the Church of Greece.
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose party, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) has rejected the word Macedonia – but not the Slavic version Makedonija – creating a schism with the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
United Nations Special Envoy Matthew Nimetz, who has been trying for more than two decades to get the two sides to agree has just resumed talks after a three-year break amid speculation an agreement was at hand or already had been reached although the negotiations are being kept secret from the residents of both countries.
Greece has blocked hopes by FYROM, which most of the world and media already call Macedonia, from getting into the European Union or NATO which require unanimous consensus from members. Both are meeting this year in critical talks that could open the door for FYROM to get in if an agreement can be reached.
Successive Greek governments have said FYROM has designs on Greek lands, including the second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki and FYROM has also claimed Greek conqueror Alexander the Great as Slavic, named its international airport after him and erected his statue in the capital of Skopje.
The new government of FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev which took over last May pledged to work closer with Greece to bring the former Yugoslav Republic closer to EU and NATO membership. He said he would relinquish claims to Alexander the Great but not to changing the name of the airport nor taking down the statue.
Dimitrov met his Kotzias, who said opposition to the Church of Greek to giving up the name Macedonia as the anti-nationalist SYRIZA reportedly favors has aligned it with the ultra-extremist super-nationalist Golden Dawn, which Greek officials said uses neo-Nazi methodology in its members.
“We parted convinced that there is a will on both sides to move forward,” Dimitrov told Reuters in an interview without giving any details or specifics, a common tactic the diplomats use to say nothing while saying something.
He said that both parties agreed to form working groups led by foreign ministers to directly negotiate possible solutions to the name dispute, without mentioning reports Kotzias has told Zaev to renege on his promise of holding a referendum over any prospective deal.
“I expect the first meeting could come as early as February,” Dimitrov said, although that would be two weeks after Nimetz is said to negotiate with both countries in meetings at the UN in New York
Under a 1995 accord, Greece agreed to allow the country to be referred to internationally only as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia until the dispute is resolved.
That is the formal name under which FYROM was admitted to the United Nations in 1993, but is referred to as Macedonia by NATO, the EU and other bodies, even though it broke away in 1991 from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.
“We have a huge responsibility,” Dimitrov said. “It is clear that the identity is very important for us. We have to find a way to convince our Greek colleagues that there is a clear distinction between our country and a region which includes northern Greece,” he said although there isn’t.
Dimitrov said FYROM, which was granted European Union candidacy status in 2005, hopes to set a date to start membership talks in June. It is also seeking an invitation to join NATO, which already includes most of its neighbors.
Almost all the names on the table now, as before, include Macedonia, with a geographical qualifier such as Northern or Upper although Albanian media reported a deal has already been secretly agreed for New Macedonia.
FYROM avoided the violence that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, but was later rocked by an ethnic Albanian insurgency that almost tore the country apart in 2001.
The country’s ethnic majority speaks a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian, while a large Albanian minority accounts for a third of the population.