Words and actions in the FYROM name dispute

Words and actions in the FYROM name dispute

The new round of talks that the United Nations special mediator in negotiations for the resolution of the ongoing name dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) with representatives from both sides on December 11-12 in Brussels signals the resumption of efforts in a positive climate after the change of government in Skopje and the moderate stance shown by the new administration. There is a prevailing belief that the next NATO summit in July at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels will represent a milestone in the endeavor to reach an agreement.

Of course, anyone who has been closely following and analyzing developments concerning this issue for the past two decades knows only too well that there have been many attempts in the past to restart talks and many such milestones.

Even Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who discussed the issue with US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser during Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s recent visit to Washington – the name dispute, as well as the overall situation in the Balkans, was also talked about at Tsipras’s meeting with Vice President Mike Pence – said that “this issue needs to be resolved in the first half of 2018,” while warning that failure to make progress would “create significant difficulties.”

The real question is whether the change of government in FYROM also means a change of position. The tone of statements on the matter by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, as well as Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, is certainly encouraging, but the distance between public statements and actual progress is very big indeed.

Moreover, the issue of changing the country’s constitutional name is not the only thing causing huge reactions in FYROM. Even if a workable and mutually acceptable compromise is found, the two sides also need to agree on how widely the new name will be used. The Greek position is “erga omnes” – that it be used by everybody. What ultimately matters is the position adopted by the world’s most powerful countries – the permanent members of the UN Security Council – and the European Union. Of course this does not mean that Greece will be indifferent to what other countries do.

The current government in Athens – though not necessarily both coalition partners – has adopted a position of consensus, in words as well as in actions, such as putting forward a series of trust-building measures. These are small and relatively easy steps, but symbolic and useful nonetheless.

Furthermore, granted that Greece has already made a major concession – when the government of Costas Karamanlis agreed in 2007 to “Macedonia” being in the composite name – it is now FYROM’s turn to take an important step forward. That is, of course, if Zaev’s intentions are sincere – this will become apparent in the next few months, not from his public statements but from the actual negotiations, starting with the talks with Matthew Nimetz in Brussels in a few weeks’ time.

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