Last week's meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart from Skopje, Zoran Zaev, was of “historical importance,” the United Nations special representative for the name dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) told Kathimerini ahead of his visit this week to the two Balkan neighbors.
Matthew Nimetz believes that the “dynamic for a solution” is being built and is optimistic that a mutually acceptable package deal can be reached with the support of the international community. The UN is in close coordination with Washington, Brussels and Berlin.
The seasoned negotiator acknowledges, however, that there is a significant divergence of positions between the two sides, not only on the level of the governments, but also within the two countries, among political parties and their populations, and with that in mind he calls on all parties to be realistic and open to compromise.
"The meeting between Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev in Davos was a positive and important one, indeed one of truly historic importance if it in fact leads to a resolution of outstanding differences between the two neighbors,” said Nimetz, who will have meetings in Athens on Tuesday.
"It is now time to intensify talks on the terms of a comprehensive agreement, with attention to the issues noted by the two prime ministers. In accord with their intention I will be coming to Athens and Skopje for talks to move the process forward. I believe there is a momentum now to find solutions,” he added.
Nimetz, who has been dealing with the FYROM name dispute for over a quarter of a century – initially as a representative of the United States under UN mediator Cyrus Vance and then as the UN secretary-general's special envoy – sees a tight timeframe.
"Already, through actions noted by the prime ministers, concrete steps are being taken, which is a positive development in and of itself. I truly believe a resolution of the differences can be achieved, given the new dynamics that exist at this time. Specific steps are already being made and it is time to intensify the negotiations, to speed them up and reach an agreement,” he said, adding, “I think we can proceed on an expedited basis to try to reach a positive result within a few months, perhaps sooner.”
At the United Nations, hopes are for a deal by April, while the summits of the European Union in June and NATO in July are seen as landmark dates.
The five name proposals put forward by Nimetz earlier this month were: Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia), Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia), Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia), Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardarska Macedonia) and Republika Makedonija (Skopje).
Having discussed the issue in great detail with many different governments in the two countries over the past 25 years, the international mediator has concluded that a composite name is the most likely possible solution, a position that Athens has indirectly supported for years and Skopje has in essence accepted since Zaev came to power.
His proposal is for the new name to be broadly applied as soon as FYROM becomes a member of the European Union, but not before its accession. In the meantime, it will be used at international organizations and fora.
He also recommends that every country reserves the right to choose which version of the name it will use, whether the Slavic, the English, or one in their own language. If, for example, “New” or “Upper Macedonia” was chosen, then a country can opt for using “Republic of New Macedonia” or “Republic of Upper Macedonia,” or the Slavic “Republika Nova Makedonija” or “Republika Gorna Makedonija.”
With respect to demands from Greece for changes to FYROM's constitution – a point of huge importance for Athens – this has to be decided by the political leadership in Skopje and the country's constitutional experts.
The negotiator acknowledges the obstacles that stand in the way of an agreement as illustrated by the reactions inside both countries, from opposition parties but also from large sections of society.
In FYROM, President Gjorge Ivanov belongs to the same nationalist party as former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who was opposed to any form of compromise. It is also indicative that the country's official negotiator in the name talks, Vasko Naumovski, dismissed Nimetz's proposals as being “far from dignified.” Likewise in Greece, it is not just the main opposition party and other smaller ones that raise objections to the direction of talks, but the coalition government itself is divided by the stance of the junior nationalist partner, Independent Greeks.
Nimetz says that while he respects the sensitivities and concerns of each side, they have to be realistic. “We must all recognize that the positions of the two governments will not be the same with respect to many of the open issues, and that there are differing viewpoints in both countries held by political leaders and within the population generally on this subject which must be taken into account. Therefore we have to be realistic that compromise is required,” he explained.
“Overall, I believe there is now a general desire within the two countries and broadly in the international community to solve the open issues between the two neighbors, and that solutions are possible. This is an historic opportunity we should all take advantage of,” he added.
The mediator says that his push has broader geopolitical significance: “There is no doubt that a settlement will enhance the security of Europe and bring benefits to the people of both nations,” he argued. “The initiative of the prime minister has already prompted certain specific steps, something that is a positive development on its own. I truly believe that a resolution of differences can be achieved given the fresh momentum there is right now.”
Ahead of his visit to Athens and Skopje, Nimetz expressed “the gratitude of the entire United Nations organization to the two prime ministers for their expression of confidence in the role of the UN as a facilitator in this process.”