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25th Sep 2021

Devil in detail of Macedonia name talks

  • Macedonian and Greek PMs Zaev (l) and Tspiras (r) to meet in margins of Sofia summit (Photo: primeminister.gr)

Unlocking Macedonia talks could be this year's big breakthrough in EU and Nato enlargement.

The Balkan state is close to a deal with Greece on a long-running name dispute that has left it out in the cold since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

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  • Zaev earlier promised to dismantle nationalist statues as part of the name deal (Photo: Funky Tee)

Officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), its desire to be called 'Macedonia' has raised Greek heckles that that implied a claim to a Greek region of the same name.

But the real devil is in Macedonia's constitution, which, Greece says, makes explicit irredentist claims, as the two countries' prime ministers, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, meet in Sofia on Thursday (17 May).

"We'll leave them in [together] bilaterally, to give them a chance to just sit there and discuss," Lilyana Pavlova, a Bulgarian minister, told EUobserver, as Sofia prepared to host EU and Balkan leaders for a special summit.

"There's no intention to intervene in any way," in the Zaev-Tsipras talks, to be held in the margins of the event, she said.

There's also little expectation of a happy ending on Thursday, but the EU is building hope in the run-up to its own summit in June.

Tsipras and Zaev "understand quite well that there's a momentum, and that they should use this momentum to get a breakthrough," Bulgaria's Pavlova said.

"We're still hopeful it'll be possible in time for June," an EU diplomat said. Tsipras and Zaev were expected to give other leaders an "optimistic briefing" after their bilateral talks, the diplomat added.

If Greece lifted its old veto by June, that would enable the EU to open accession talks with Macedonia, untying one of the Gordian knots of Balkan politics.

The good news would have a "positive spillover effect" on "the general atmosphere" in the region, the diplomat said.

Greek approval would also enable Nato to take in Macedonia at its summit in July, in a strategic move in Europe at a time of geopolitical tension with Russia.

"The Western Balkans region is in serious need of good news," Zaev's office told EUobserver in a statement.

"If we find a solution with Greece, there will be no reasonable argument to stop us from making a step forward in both EU and Nato integration," it said.

Protocols for a Nato invitation to join would "start automatically … once we have a mutually acceptable solution with Greece," Skopje added.

The two sides have zeroed in on new names, such as Upper Macedonia.

But rewriting the Macedonian constitution to remove offensive language could prove harder to agree, amid the risk of a nationalist backlash in both Greece and Macedonia if things go wrong.

"Changing the name is the easy part. The constitution is the problem," a Greek source, who asked not to be named, told this website.

"You cannot sell a deal to Greeks unless FYROM addresses irredentism via constitutional change," the source said.

Zaev's chancellery showed little sign of taking that step ahead of Thursday's meeting.

"Constitutional change is not easy in any country. It requires a broad and difficult domestic debate," it told EUobserver.

"An international agreement endorsed by the opposition and verified by a popular referendum would be the strongest guarantee for the sustainability of a solution," it suggested instead.

Hundreds of thousands of disconsolate Greeks, joined by Greek nationalists, have taken part in anti-name deal rallies, posing a threat to Tsipras' authority.

But the stakes are higher in Skopje, where political clashes saw a nationalist mob storm parliament last year and beat up Zaev, leaving a scar on his forehead.

The geopolitical stakes are also higher, amid Russian efforts to stir hatred between Macedonia's ethnic minorities in order to hold back Western expansion in the region.

Nationalism had advanced in Macedonia in recent years because the Greek veto over its EU and Nato future had left the country "at an impasse", Zaev's office said.

But its "EU and Nato perspectives" were "the glue" that guaranteed stability in the part-Macedonian, part-Albanian country, it said.

If the EU and Nato were to take further steps toward accession, then "the nationalists would have no chance" to upset the Western apple cart, Skopje added.

Nato prepares to take in Macedonia

Macedonia to be invited into Nato as soon as it solves name dispute, but Greek nationalists could slow things down.

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