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21st Feb 2024

EU sees 'momentum' on Macedonia name dispute

  • Hahn (r) with Zaev in Brussels on Monday (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

There was “new momentum” for solving the name dispute that has helped to keep Macedonia out of the EU and Nato, the EU’s enlargement chief has said.

Johannes Hahn said on Monday (12 June) in Brussels that the formation of a new government in Skopje, ending a two-year long political crisis there, could lead to a breakthrough on Macedonia's name dispute with Greece.

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  • Stoltenberg (l) urged Zaev to build "strong democratic institutions" (Photo: nato.int)

“I think there’s new momentum and I think we can use this situation and make progress”, he said.

Zoran Zaev, the new Macedonian leader, who hails from the centre-left SDSM party, said alongside Hahn that his foreign minister would go to Athens on Wednesday and that a solution appeared “feasible”.

Zaev said after meeting Nato head Jens Stoltenberg later the same day that “all possible options” were being considered, including to join Nato under a provisional name and to negotiate a lasting solution with Greece later on.

Macedonia split from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and became a UN member in 1993 under the provisional name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

It wanted to join the EU and Nato under the name the Republic of Macedonia, but Greece has blocked its accession talks for over a decade on grounds that it implied a territorial claim to the Greek region of Macedonia.

Macedonia’s former leader, Nikola Gruevski, had antagonised Greece via nationalist pomp, but Zaev has vowed to end that.

Lessons learned

Hahn also said on Monday that the EU’s handling of the name dispute had contributed to destabilising Macedonia.

“The European Union should have learned their lesson and I hope we’ll find a solution at last to start [accession] negotiations”, he said.

He said the EU’s refusal to open accession talks with Macedonia due to the Greek veto “was clearly not helpful for stabilising the country”.

“Ten years ago, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was the best pupil in the class [in terms of pro-EU reforms] and this is not the case today,” he said.

The Macedonia crisis erupted after Zaev leaked wire-taps indicating that Gruevski and his party were guilty of mass-scale corruption and election rigging.

It culminated in violent protests in which a pro-Gruevski mob stormed parliament in April and beat up Zaev, who still bore a scar from the attack on his forehead on Monday.

Hahn urged Zaev to press ahead with reforms on the judiciary, rule of law, and public administration.

He said that if Macedonia made progress by autumn, the Commission could once again recommend that the EU opened accession talks.

He added that it was “not unrealistic” that Macedonia, or some other Wester Balkan states, could join the EU before 2024.

Foreign interference

Nato’s Stoltenberg said he was “shocked” by the violence in Skopje in April.

He said Montenegro’s accession to Nato last week showed that Nato's “door was still open”, but also urged Zaev to strengthen rule of law and to stamp out corruption.

Speaking after Russia tried to enflame the political crisis in Macedonia and amid allegations that it tried to stage a coup in Montenegro, Stoltenberg said “strong democratic institutions" were "the best way to build resilience against foreign interference”.

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