The Prime Minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, announced today that he will take immediate steps to change the name of the Skopje Alexander the Great Airport and of a national highway with the same name, as a first good will step toward resolving the Macedonian naming dispute and related thorny issues.
The announcement came at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, after three-hour talks on the sidelines of the World economic Summit at Davos, Switzerland.
Tsipras, for his part, stressed that resolving and putting to rest Skopje’s irredentist claims against Greece is at the top of Athens’ agenda in the naming talks.
Tsipras said that grappling with the irredentism issue comes before the name, and he stressed that there «must be no open window that would allow new [irredentist] provocations in the future».
Greek olive branchOn the Greek side, Tsipras agreed to advance Skopje’s candidacy for membership in the Adriatic-Ionian initiative (AII).
Moreover, the Greek government will move to ratify in parliament the second stage of the FYROM-EU Association Agreement, Tsipras announced
Tsipras underlined the unswerving Greek position that a comprehensive settlement – that addresses not only the name, but also the eradication of irredentist claims in the FYROM constitution, and resolves issues of language and national identity – is the absolute precondition for Athens to approve Skopje’s entry to Nato and the EU. Greece is a member of both and unanimity is required in approving new members.
The two sides agreed to intensify talks at the level of prime ministers and foreign ministers, and Tsipras said that there will be efforts to open a border passage between the two countries, at Prespes.
Expectations had been lowered
Before the meeting, the high hopes for a settlement of the FYROM naming issue have been dashed, as the proposals tabled by UN mediator Matthew Nimetz have stirred a strong opposition backlash in both countries.
On the Greek side, the surprise showing at Sunday’s Thessaloniki rally of hundreds of thousands of protesters opposing use of the name Macedonia by Skopje limits Tsipras’ room to manoeuvre in negotiations.
On the other hand, it could be a strong card in negotiations, forcing Skopje to accommodate Greece’s red lines, and allowing Zaev to persuade the opposition that a maximalist approach is out of the question.
The Mitsotakis torpedo
Shortly before the Davos talks, main opposition New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the time is not right for a settlement, and blasted Tsipras’ handling of the affair with “secret diplomacy” and with contempt for the opposition, which he has not yet briefed, but bereft of a clear Greek national position.
Mitsotakis demanded that FYROM change its constitution, removing irredentist claims against Greece, as a central part of any settlement of the longstanding dispute.
Naturally, there will be strong US pressures – as Mitsotakis conceded there was in 2008 – on both countries’ leaders, and on their opposition parties, to accept a viable settlement with mutual compromises.
Washington is eager to induct FYROM into NATO with a new name, as Greek objections to it entering with its constitutional name – Republic of Macedonia – scuttled that prospect in 2008, triggering the strong consternation of the Bush administration.
Zaev’s good intentions not enough
Tsipras’ advisors believe that Zaev has exerted good faith efforts to reach an understanding and a mutually acceptable settlement, and they are banking on that to help transcend the thorny issues in the negotiations, despite strong opposition reactions in Skopje.
That was echoed in the remarks of the FYROM government spokesman, Mile Bosnjakovski today, regarding the Davos talks.
«Prime Minister Zaev has repeatedly stated that he is optimistic that a solution to the dispute will be found between Macedonia and Greece in order to preserve the dignity of both sides. In this direction at today’s meeting, the meeting itself is a step forward to the rise. In principle, all of these elements that I have mentioned are positive, and we consider that there is a political will in Athens and Macedonia to close this issue, «said Bosnjakovski,
In Skopje, Greek demands for a revision of the FYROM constitution to remove all irredentist claims against Greece and to set aside the concept of a Macedonian nationality that exclusively applies to the citizens of FYROM, has always been extremely unpopulat
FYROM has an Albanian minority estimated at a huge 30 percent of the population, and concentrated in the northwest of the country, near Kosovo, and it is eager to become anchored in Nato and the EU.