Macedonia, Greece seek to settle name spat at last


Vienna (AFP)

The Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers met in Vienna on Friday for UN-mediated talks aimed at translating progress in their bitter, long-running dispute over the ex-Yugoslav republic's name into a deal.

The spat, which has sparked emotional protests by thousands of people in recent weeks in both countries, has raged since Macedonia became an independent country in 1991.

Greece objects to its northern neighbour's name, arguing it suggests that Macedonia has claims to the territory and heritage of Greece's historic northern region of the same name.

In light of Greece's objections, the country joined the United Nations in 1993 with the unwieldy name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short.

The dispute has also hampered Macedonia's hopes of joining the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Last year, UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, a 78-year-old veteran US diplomat long involved in the row -- reportedly for a token $1 a year -- was able to relaunch the process, meeting both sides separately and together.

- 'Honourable compromise' -

There have been signs of progress, with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov saying last week they were looking for an "honourable compromise".

Several possible new names have been doing the rounds, with "Gorna Makedonija" ("Upper Macedonia") the most frequently mentioned, although Greece insists it be "untranslatable" and not referred to as "Macedonia" in other languages.

Macedonia made a concession in February by changing the name of the capital's Alexander the Great airport to Skopje International Airport.

The motorway linking Macedonia with Greece has also just been renamed the Friendship Highway.

The UN's Nimetz said in January that he was "very optimistic the process is going in the right direction".

Athens and Skopje have a "common resolve... to solve the problem," Macedonian political scientist Nano Ruzin, a former NATO ambassador close to the government, told AFP.

- The nationalist problem -

But both countries' governments are facing the opposition of nationalists who refuse any concession over the issue.

Kotzias has received threats and a survey Sunday showed that seven out of 10 Greeks would be hostile to a name including the term Macedonia or a derivative.

In Skopje, the nationalist rightwing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party could use the issue to weaken the government, which relies on a thin majority, although the group's current leaders are more moderate than previously.

And the devil is in the detail.

Athens wants the change of name to be backed with a constitutional change, and for it be applied on the "erga omnes" ("towards all") legal principle, meaning universal use inside and outside Macedonia.

But even with the support of the ethnic Albanian minority parties, the Social Democrats who lead Macedonia's government do not have a majority to pass a constitutional change in parliament.

Before the meeting, Kotzias said that his desire for constitutional change should be translated into the "international agreement we will conclude at the UN, and the inter-state agreement we will sign".

Ruzin sees this as Greece leaving the door open to a staged process, with the possibility of leaving the constitutional change for later.