Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is spending the New Year’s holiday in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as the guest of the city’s mayor.
Zaev and Mayor Yiannis Boutaris dined Saturday night in one of the city’s top restaurants, serenaded by a Macedonian band playing Balkan folk songs.
“We won’t be talking politics,” Boutaris told reporters before dinner, repeating this when the two emerged three hours later. “We have a special relationship with Mr. Zaev and I hope he returns soon.”
Zaev wished all Greek citizens a happy new year and said it “was a great pleasure for me to have dinner with the mayor of Thessaloniki and his cabinet.”
Boutaris said he extended the invitation last November, when visiting FYROM’s capital of Skopje. Although billed as a private affair, the visit was announced by the government spokesman in Skopje.
The visit would have been unthinkable for most of the past 25 years, with Greece and FYROM involved in a dispute over the Balkan state’s name, which Greece says implies designs on its own territory and its northern province of Macedonia, of which Thessaloniki is the capital. Greeks were also furious when FYROM, which won its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, appropriated the legacy of Alexander the Great, the most famous ruler of the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia.
Both Boutaris and Zaev stand in contrast to the nationalists on both sides who have kept the conflict alive, with little desire for compromise.
Zaev, who came to power last May by toppling a decade-old conservative government that had taken up the “Macedonian” nationalist cause, has recently declared that Alexander the Great’s legacy is one shared by many nations and has expressed a desire to improve relations with Greece.
Boutaris, who ended a 24-year conservative municipal rule in Thessaloniki in 2010 at the head of a center-left coalition is an outspoken – and considered by many slightly eccentric – winemaker, with little patience for the narrow-minded nationalist views expressed by many in his city. [AP]