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News 30 Aug 17

Macedonia-Greece Talks to Focus on Trust-Building

Building trust will be the focus of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias's visit to Skopje, with new efforts to solve the long-running dispute about Macedonia's name likely to follow later.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Greek and Macedonian Foreign Ministers, Kotzias and Dimitrov in June in Athens. Photo: MIA

Kotzias's one-day visit to Macedonia on Thursday will be dedicated solely to expanding the trust-building measures between the two neighbouring countries, an informed source from the Macedonian Foreign Ministry told BIRN.

Any talks on the long-standing name dispute which has been preventing Macedonia from joining NATO and the start of its EU accession talks will have to wait until after the local elections in Macedonia in mid-October, the source said.

Instead, Kotzias's visit to Skopje, which comes after his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov went on a diplomatic ice-breaking mission to Athens in June, will focus on improving cooperation in the spheres of economy, transport, infrastructure and energy.

Ahead of the talks, Greek media have cited unnamed sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry as saying that Athens would also use the visit to "feel the pulse" of Macedonia's new government which was elected in May, and which pledged to make much more sincere efforts to solve the name dispute.

Kotzias could raise recent incidents which prompted Athens to doubt Skopje's declared change in policy.

In early August, the European Handball Federation, EHF, excluded the Greek women's handball team from its championship held in Skopje after Greece refused to play Macedonia's team because some of its officials were wearing clothing with the name ‘Macedonia’ displayed.

On August 16, the Greek Foreign Ministry protested once again after the Macedonian consul-general in Toronto, Jovica Palacevski, who was appointed by the previous administration, participated in an event at which a so-called "map of ethnic Macedonia" was displayed, which included the northern Greek province of Macedonia.

In his response, Macedonian Foreign Minister Dimitrov said that the event was not organised by the consulate in Toronto and "taking pictures with a map that includes Greek territory... does not reflect the policy of the Macedonian government".

Dimitrov added that he would not tolerate similar incidents.

The name dispute centres around Greek insistence that the use of the word Macedonia implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.

Athens has blocked Skopje's attempts to join NATO and the EU over the unresolved issue.

In 2008, Macedonia narrowly missed the chance to enter NATO solely due to the long-standing dispute with Greece. Macedonia cannot start EU accession talks for the same reason.

No further progress has since been made in the UN-mediated name talks and bilateral relations soured further as Athens repeatedly accused the former Macedonian government led by Nikola Gruevski of staging provocations.

The new Macedonian government led by Zoran Zaev's Social Democrats pledged to renew efforts to solve the dispute and abandon Gruevski's provocative moves such as the naming of the Skopje airport or the country's main highway after Alexander the Great, which Greece sees as exclusively part of its own national history.

As part of this effort, Dimitrov's first task as foreign minister was to head to Athens in June to present the new government's priorities.

Meanwhile, the UN mediator in the name dispute, Matthew Nimetz, renewed his activities and met Dimitrov and Kotzias on separate occasions during the summer.
Although Nimetz said there was a new energy for solving the dispute, he also remarked that he did not bring any new name proposals and that an intensification of the name talks could be expected this autumn at the earliest.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev said also last week that "I expect new ideas for solving this issue from Nimetz by the end of the year or at the beginning of next year".

Observers in Athens and in Skopje speculate that a window for solving the issue will open after Macedonia's local elections in October and that the climate may continue to be favourable until Macedonia's presidential elections, which slated for 2019.

However, some speculate that Macedonia, along with the EU and the US, may try to intensify the negotiations by spring next year in hope of making some kind of breakthrough.

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