February 1, 2018 / 5:35 PM / 4 months ago

Interview: Greece sees breakthrough soon in Macedonia name impasse

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece will soon submit draft proposals to resolve its decades-old name row with Macedonia, its foreign minister said, adding that a settlement could be reached in the coming months.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

The two countries have agreed to step up negotiations this year to resolve the dispute, which has frustrated the ambitions of Greece’s small northern neighbour to join NATO and the European Union. Greece is a member of both.

Greece objects to the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name Macedonia, arguing that it, along with contentious articles in Skopje’s constitution, could imply territorial claims over its own northern region of the same name.

Greeks are proud of their links to Macedonian empire-builder Alexander the Great, who spread Hellenistic culture across the ancient world.

“In life, Alexander the Great ... proved we should cut Gordian knots. At some point we should finish with such issues,” Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told Reuters in an interview.

Asked what would constitute progress for Athens if the dispute with Skopje was not settled by June, he said: “It will be settled.”

Talks between the two states have been inconclusive since 1991, when Macedonia withdrew from former Yugoslavia. It was admitted into the United Nations in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Kotzias said there was a new momentum to settle the dispute since a more moderate government was elected in Macedonia last year and following three years of trust-building efforts.

“We want to solve it. It’s in our national interest and in the interests of the region, for stability, security and economic growth,” Kotzias said.

Kotzias said Athens was working on a draft which could form the basis of discussion.

“It won’t be a Greek text containing only our views, nor a done deal-compromise. It will be a text which we consider could be the basis upon which we could start to cooperate,” he said.

Kotzias said he hoped the draft would be ready in February.

For Athens, the name Macedonia refers to a large area of the central Balkans, most of which lies in Greece.

The most profound difference between the two sides was over references in Skopje’s national constitution, Kotzias said. Greece perceives them as implying territorial claims and says they must be changed.

“LINGUISTIC ACROBATICS”

More than 140 countries worldwide refer to the republic as Macedonia.

Greece has previously said a compromise could include a compound name with a geographical or chronological qualifier, and be the only name used for the country.

But the leftist-led government has failed to muster wider political support for its negotiating stance or for any suggested name that includes the word Macedonia.

“Let me tell you a paradox. Let’s say we don’t reach agreement today, what name is left?” said Kotzias when asked about that lack of support.

“Internationally, we will be left with plain ‘Macedonia’, therefore we will have no gain, and in our (bilateral) relations left with ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’,” he added.

“Grammatically, it’s a name which still includes the name Macedonia, which is compound and with chronological definition. So we are just fooling ourselves with linguistic acrobatics.”

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks turned out at a demonstration on Jan. 21 against any use by the neighbouring state of the name Macedonia. It was on a scale rarely seen in protests against the eight years of austerity foisted upon Greece by its international lenders.

“The demonstrations are signs of democracy. In both countries, people who do not agree to a good compromise ... do not have bad intent,” Kotzias said.

“They are simply people who see the problem from a different angle, without taking into account the historical (background) or future cooperation prospects,” he added.

“We have to respect this history and learn from it, but not be trapped in it.”

A U.N. special envoy said in Skopje on Thursday it was “time for a decision” on the dispute.

“This is the right time for a breakthrough on this issue, to solve it finally and move forward in the region,” Matthew Nimetz told reporters.

“The momentum is now. We probably have weeks and months.”

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece, January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Additional reporting by Kole Casule and Ivana Sekularac; editing by Andrew Roche

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