Greece, Macedonia poised for breakthrough in name row

by Catherine BOITARD
"It's about the name" reads graffiti on a wall in central Skopje referring to a bitter dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name

Greece and Macedonia appeared poised to draw a line under a 27-year name dispute with their respective prime ministers expected to hold a key phone call on Tuesday.

At issue is Macedonia's name -- which Greece objects to because it has its own northern province called Macedonia, and fears it may imply territorial ambitions.

The deal involves a compromise name acceptable to both countries which will end a row dating back to 1991 when Macedonia declared independence.

Macedonia's Zoran Zaev was expected to phone his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras during the day, with the Greek premier's office saying late Monday that their talks would be "concluded" in that call.

After months of renewed discussions, the list has been narrowed down to "New Macedonia", "Northern Macedonia" or "Upper Macedonia".

"Zaev has chosen which of the names he wants," Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told Kontra TV on Monday.

Kotzias, who prepared a 20-page draft agreement after repeated talks with his counterpart Nikola Dimitrov, said the agreement would specify that Macedonia's language is of Slavic origin.

"It's clear that (Macedonia) bears no relation to the ancient (Macedonian) culture... and that their language belongs to the Slavic language," he said.

A complete deal could take months, and both governments have faced criticism at home over a possible compromise.

- Hardliners critical -

Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov on Tuesday said it was "irresponsible" to discuss such "an extremely important issue" in a phone call

"There is a need of wider national consensus for finding a solution that won't hurt the dignity of the Macedonian people and citizens," said Ivanov, who is close to the nationalist party which was defeated by Zaev last year.

Earlier this year, there have been several protests against an agreement in Athens, Thessaloniki and Skopje.

Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, a fellow hardliner and a junior coalition partner in Tsipras' government, dismissed talk of a deal, saying there was "no chance" Zaev could get it approved.

Greece's parliament will be called to ratify a possible deal after Macedonian lawmakers approve it, and provided that Skopje fulfils preliminary EU and NATO requirements to begin membership talks, Kotzias said.

"Our parliament (approval) will follow internal procedures (in Macedonia). They need these procedures to begin (talks) with the EU and NATO. When this is done, we will need to ratify the deal so it can take effect," he said.

Skopje hopes to secure a date to begin accession talks at an EU summit in late June, and an invitation to join NATO in mid-July.

Athens has long objected to its neighbour's constitutional name -- the Republic of Macedonia -- because it fears it could imply territorial ambitions.

Ancient Macedonia was the cradle of Alexander the Great's empire, a point of pride to Greeks today.

But under the Romans, the province of Macedonia was expanded to include territory in modern-day Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.

"It's about the name" reads graffiti on a wall in central Skopje referring to a bitter dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name