Amidst backtracking, a difficult week in the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Talks

Amidst backtracking, a difficult week in the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Talks


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While a few positive steps can be listed, real progress over the last week on the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute is hard to document. To most observers, significant ground has actually been lost now that the Greek public has demonstrated its lack of confidence in the ruling Syriza-ANEL coalition’s negotiating stance with the impressive turnout at the massive Athens rally February 4.

On the plus side, we witnessed action in Skopje to implement the Davos promises of just two weeks ago to rename the country’s main airport and central highway, excising the word “Alexander” from their names. This is significant as once the change is formally notified to international aviation organizations, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has declared his willingness to fly to Skopje for direct negotiations; he reportedly has a new set of proposals to deliver.

FYROM/Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev also indicated publicly that his country is now ready to accept a compound name, with a geographical qualifier, to resolve the dispute, a gesture that the Greek Foreign Ministry warmly welcomed, perhaps too quickly.

Many observers in Greece noted that these actions were concrete proof that the February 4 Macedonia demonstration in Athens got Skopje’s attention, even while the Greek government downplayed its significance and size. Meanwhile, an injection of a different form of citizens’ diplomacy was visible this week with the publication on February 8 of a joint letter by the mayors of both capital cities — Skopje and Athens — in both countries’ leading papers, arguing for a peaceful resolution of the Name Dispute.

Skopje’s Mayor Petre Siligov met with Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis on February 9, with Kaminis planning a reciprocal trip to Skopje soon thereafter.

The action in Athens this week was a bit more multidimensional. While the ruling coalition brushed off the February 4 demonstration and tried to minimise attendance figures, the Greek public was treated to a new distraction, the Novartis bribery scandal, which was announced on February 5 by the Greek Justice Minister as he released files to Parliament.

New Europe readers will have seen separate reporting on the scandal, but the key point is that nobody in scandal-wary Greece actually accepts that this scandal was not timed to undermine the intense media coverage of the Macedonia demonstration and shift attention, allowing some cover for the Name Dispute negotiations to continue.

Another rally for Macedonia is being planned for Patras, Greece’s third city, for February 25.

As the Name Dispute negotiations heated up, foreign observers in Skopje had begun commenting in mid-January about the questionable probability of passage of any agreed constitutional changes through the FYROM/Macedonian ratification process, rating the odds at somewhere between a fool’s quest to downright impossible, thanks to a significant number of “hardliners” remaining in positions of authority, including the country’s President. This was, of course, something not mentioned by Greek proponents of a deal, while the issue of “erga omnes” (use of one agreed name for all purposes, requiring eventual constitutional changes in Skopje) has also been curiously omitted from public pronouncements.

Accordingly, many observers had concluded that a quiet agreement was in the works. This was apparently an over-optimistic interpretation as FYROM/Macedonia PM Zaev on February 7 made a few shocking statements leaving negotiations in a somewhat disoriented state. He stated that no constitutional changes would be needed as a result of the potential agreement since all that was actually needed to address Athens’ concerns had already been done in the last revision of the constitution in 1993. The Greek side has yet to absorb this revelation, which might turn out to be a tactic Zaev is using to seize the moral high ground or call for international help. Time will tell.

What’s next? A bold flight by the Greek Foreign Minister directly to distant Skopje? A possible new round of Nimetz visits? A quiet pow-wow in New York or Geneva?

Stay tuned…

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