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News 25 Aug 16

Greek FM on Trust-Building Mission to Macedonia

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias is visiting Macedonia on a mission to improve ties between the two neighbours, which have long been frozen as a result of the ongoing 'name' dispute.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
 Greek FM Kotzias and Macedonian FM Poposki. Archive photo by: MIA

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told media ahead of Kotzias's visit on Thursday that it was a sign of the improved political communication between the two countries and a result of recent measures for building mutual trust.

But Poposki said that it is very unlikely that the two would seriously discuss the name dispute that has been blocking Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration.

"I do not believe that on this occasion we can tackle such a serious issue. Our priority is to improve relations between the two countries and strengthen ties in several areas," Poposki said.

During his stay in Skopje, Kotzias will meet Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev as well as Popovski.

The first of a series of trust-building meetings between Kotzias and Poposki took place in June last year. In December 2015, Poposki visited Athens. The two have also met on the sidelines of several international conferences.

After the last meeting in Athens, Poposki said that the two countries are "separated by mountains" over the name dispute, meaning that a solution is still a long way off.

Kotzias said that pressing on with trust-building measures was the best way towards an eventual compromise on the name dispute, an issue that he said was complicated by "extreme nationalism in both countries".

Among the measures for cooperation that were considered are the opening of a new border crossing in the Lake Prespa region as well as improving transport links between the towns of Bitola and Florina.

Further steps include improved cooperation between the two parliaments and between other institutions. 

Ioanis Armakolas, assistant professor at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Greece, told BIRN that the strengthening of bilateral ties is welcome and could at least indirectly help solve the years-long dispute over Macedonia's name, to which Athens objects.

But Armakolas said that there should be "no illusions that this would create an atmosphere for a breakthrough [in the name dispute]".

He added that for a breakthrough, Macedonia must first resolve its serious political crisis so that both countries can fully dedicate themselves to the issue.

Former Macedonian Foreign Minister Denko Maleski also welcomed the stepping up of political meetings but said he does not have high hopes about the name dispute.

"It would be interesting to hear if the Macedonian minister has anything new to say regarding our current position, apart from repeating the diplomatic phrases that do not tell the entire essence of the dispute," Maleski said.

Greece blocked Macedonia's accession to NATO in 2008 and is currently blocking Macedonia's attempts to join the EU in connection with the dispute over Macedonia's name.

Greece claims that use of the word Macedonia implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

Athens has been blocking Macedonia's EU integration despite the fact that it obtained EU candidate status in 2005 and European Commission reports have recommended a start to Macedonian membership talks since 2009.

Largely owing to the name dispute, relations between Athens and Skopje have remained in logjam for years without a single bilateral treaty being signed since 2007.

The last round of UN-sponsored talks aimed at solving the name dispute took place in July 2014, when the veteran mediator in the talks, Matthew Nimetz, arrived in the region. However, Nimetz admitted that he had not come with any fresh proposals.

In November 2014, BIRN revealed a potential name that Nimetz had suggested for Macedonia in April 2013 – ‘Upper Republic of Macedonia’.

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