ATHENS – Pummeled by critics for wanting to give away the name of Macedonia – an ancient Greek province – in a new composite for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to settle a 26-year-old dispute, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said he’s still waiting to see what Greece’s Balkan neighbor wants.
As did Prime Minister and ruling Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, Kotzias dismissed a massive rally in Athens of more than 100,000 people opposed to the name giveaway as insignificant.
“I think that the rally was not as big as its organizers expected, considering that the entire center-right, right, and the extreme right-wing opposition supported it, as well as the church and other organizations,” he told Euronews in an exclusive interview.
But with pressure still on from opponents, including the major opposition New Democracy Conservatives with big leads in polls, and the Church of Greece joining the protest against giving away Macedonia’s name, Kotzias said the position of FYROM isn’t yet clear.
“I’m still waiting for Skopje, finally, to come out publicly and talk about the compound name,” he said, using the name of FYROM’s capital as many Greeks do instead of the clumsy acronym agreed to by a Greek government in 1992 under New Democracy, which allowed the use of Macedonia.
With United Nations Special Envoy, an American lawyer who’s failed for more than two decades to find an answer resuming negotiations after a three-year break and pressing Greece to relent and lift its veto over FYROM getting into NATO – with America wanting a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans – Kotzias said he would agree to letting FYROM keep Macedonia with a qualifier such as Upper, Northern or New Macedonia.
“Which adjective do they want in front of the noun and describe it to their population?” he asked without explaining why he hasn’t already had the answer since he’s been involved in the resumed talks.
FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev has offered only so far in return to remove the name of Alexander the Great from his country’s major airport and national road, but not a statue, nor change its Constitution which has claims on Greek lands, including the real Macedonia as well as Thessaloniki, the country’s second-largest city and port.
Zaev though has said he would take any prospective deal to a referendum, which Kotzias reportedly asked him not to do and to renege on that promise so Greece won’t have to go to voters as well.
Kotzias said FYROM has not prepared its people for an agreement, but recognizes that the Greek government has similar problems but didn’t mention that Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of SYRIZA’s junior coalition the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) has rejected the name giveaway.
Kotzias said it’s been hard to convince Greeks to give up a piece of their history, legacy and culture for political reasons so that SYRIZA can end the name feud, with critics saying the move comes to distract attention from a faltering economy and Tsipras’ reneging on anti-austerity promises.
“We are preparing the Greek public and as you can see, we are facing difficulties … I do not see the same preparation on the other side and I have to say that I’m very concerned, even now, while we are having this interview,” he said.
More than 140 countries already call FYROM by Macedonia and Kotzias said Greece, which could nevertheless still keep that country out of NATO unless a different name were agreed, has to give in.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is to visit Skopje at the end of the month as part of a tour of six countries of the western Balkans.
“This is something that he has been planning and also announcing already for a long time. This is an area that he knows well from his previous capacities as Prime Minister of Luxembourg and he considers this region to be of great importance,” said Kotzias.