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Nimetz regrets lost ‘opportunities for agreement’

During the two decades since the emergence of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), there were moments when either Athens or Skopje had the necessary flexibility to accept a compromise solution but never at the same time, United Nations Special Representative Matthew Nimetz told Kathimerini in an interview a few days before the 20th anniversary of the neighboring country?s independence on September 8.

According to sources in Greece and FYROM, the only moment when both sides seemed ready to agree was in February 2001, when Costas Simitis and Ljubco Georgievski seemed ready to accept the name ?Gorna Makedonija,? but ethnic tensions inside FYROM did not allow the process to move ahead. As for Greece, once more in our history, the maximalist approaches did not allow the acceptance of realistic compromises which were in the past even described as something close to ?national treason? but today would have been seen as a national success, the most characteristic case being the name ?Slavomacedonia,? which Constantine Mitsotakis suggested in the early 90s.

Nimetz feels sad about the inability to achieve an agreement during these many years of negotiations of which he has been a part since 1994, but he is continuing in his efforts because the two sides want the UN process to exist. He makes it clear that he does not intend to put forward a new proposal if he has no indication from both sides that it will be accepted as a basis for negotiations.

As Athens insists on a geographic qualifier, it is thought that his last official proposal, ?North Macedonia,? as well as ?Upper Macedonia? or ?Vardar Macedonia,? which have also been discussed, could be accepted.

The UN mediator says that the direct talks between George Papandreou and Nikola Gruevski open new possibilities, although he notes that good personal relations are one thing and substantive agreement another. He is not sure if getting an interim agreement before a comprehensive solution was the right choice, noting the pluses and minuses of the decision, and leaves the final judgment to the historians of the future. Finally, he describes as an important move the decision of the government of Costas Karamanlis in 2007 to accept a composite name that includes the term ?Macedonia,? and he criticizes, with the discretion that stems from his institutional role, the decision to put a huge statue of Alexander the Great in the center of Skopje.

Were we ever close to a solution?

There were times during these 20 years when I sensed that one side seemed closer to a more flexible approach, but the other was not, and vice versa.

Where does your mediation stand at the moment?

I continue to see Adamantios Vassilakis and Zoran Jolevski very regularly and exchange ideas with them, as well as other participants in the process.

Do you plan to put forward a new proposal soon?

As things stand now I will not present a new proposal lightly, unless I have an indication from both sides that there is serious interest in having one presented, and I conclude it has a serious chances of being accepted by both sides as a basis of negotiation. At this stage it?s better not to present a new proposal than to have one more effort be rejected outright by one or both of the sides. That said, there are a number of ideas still on the table worthy of continued dialogue through the UN process or bilaterally and I stand ready to be helpful.

Are you sad about not getting an agreement after all these years? Have there been moments when you?ve thought of quitting?

Despite not having a final solution after all these years, I believe it can be done, and I hope that through continued dialogue and constructive leadership we will find a mutually acceptable solution.

How do you view the decision of the Karamanlis government in 2007 to officially accept a composite name?

In 2007 the Greek government made an important gesture officially accepting a composite name that includes the term ?Macedonia.? It wasn?t easy and should be appreciated as a contribution to the process of resolving this issue.

And the move by Papandreou to start direct talks with his counterpart?

The direct talks between Papandreou and Gruevski are a good thing. The fact that there is a dialogue on that level opens possibilities and makes a breakthrough easier to imagine, but of course good personal relations are one thing and substantive agreement another.

How do you view the decision to put a huge statue of Alexander the Great in the central square of Skopje?

Moves by any side that inflame tensions are not helpful. They make people wonder what the real purposes of such actions are and therefore make it more difficult to focus constructively on arriving at a fair acceptable solution. I do think that the issue of respect for patrimony and historical issues will be more easily dealt with once a solution to the ?name? is found.

What was the influence of FYROM?s recognition as ?Macedonia? by the Bush administration the day after his re-election?

The 2004 US recognition of FYROM as ?Macedonia? created an uproar in Greece. I did not know anything of it in advance and was surprised myself. I was never told the reason, but my guess — and it?s only a guess — was that the Bush administration felt that Skopje had been closer to its policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere and wanted to reward them, while Greece was not. My sense was also that the Bush administration also felt that they are a small country, having serious internal issues and that US recognition of the constitutional name would help resolve internal issues.

Did the Bush administration support Skopje on the substance of the issue?

It seemed to me that the Bush administration was influenced by the view that the country simply had the right to call themselves the way they want. At least this is what I believe was the motivation, but I was never told, and as a UN official at this stage of my career, was not and am not privy to the thinking of the US government on this issue.

Was getting the interim agreement first the right approach?

The historians will decide if the interim agreement was the right course to follow. On the one hand it was good, because it brought the two countries and peoples closer and improved their relations, but the problem has not ended, and one could say we missed an opportunity to solve everything at once. On the other hand, if we had not achieved the interim accord, relations might well have been in a worse situation today.

What was Richard Holbrooke?s contribution?

Holbrooke was a strong personality, I had worked with him at the State Department in the 1970s. He used the tense situation in the rest of the Balkans in 1995 to personally push the two leaders, Andreas Papandreou and Kiro Gligorov, and helped Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and me to get them to accept the interim agreement which Vance and I had negotiated.