European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s five-day tour of the Western Balkans kicked off on February 25 in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia capital Skopje where he met with the country’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
Speaking at a joint press conference following their talks, Juncker sidestepped addressing the most pressing issue facing Zaev’s government – the 27-year-old Naming Dispute with its southern neighbour Greece. Skopje and Athens have made headlines in recent weeks as talks have intensified between the two nations to rename the landlocked nation, which is commonly known by the acronym FYROM in reference to its current UN-recognised provisional title.
“As for the name of the country, I don’t want to mention the topic. I leave it to you to solve the problem with your Greek friends,” said Juncker, before adding, “Last week, I invited prime minister (Alexis) Tsipras to continue in the same direction. (to find a resolution to the Naming Dispute) I stressed how important the issue was, but when I arrived at the airport I realised that things were already changing,” Juncker said in reference to Zaev’s order to rename Skopje’s international airport and a key highway, both of which were named after Alexander the Great by his nationalist predecessor, Nikola Gruevski.
Greece has opposed the use of the name “Macedonia” since FYROM broke away from the Communist Federation of Yugoslavia in 1991 as it is the historic name of Greece’s northern region that once made up the core of the kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great.
In recent years, the recently ousted nationalist government of the 2 million mainly Eastern Orthodox Slavs and Muslim Albanians who make up the bulk of FYROM’s population, infuriated Athens when it used millions of euros of public funds to install poorly constructed Las Vegas-style neo-classical monuments and dozens of crudely sculpted statues of key figures from antiquity in the centre of the capital Skopje. Greece claims the moves were overt irredentist attempts by Zaev’s predecessors to misappropriate Greek history.
Athens had repeatedly blocked FYROM’s entry into the EU and NATO until the Naming Dispute is resolved.
Juncker had high praise for the progress FYROM has made with its structural and economic reforms, as well as its recent signing of a friendship agreement with its eastern neighbour and close linguistic cousin Bulgaria, with Juncker saying that each move was a positive step towards strengthening the cohesion of the European Union.
The Zaev and his eight-month-old government received compliments from Juncker, who lauded the youthful prime minister for the political will he’s shown in tackling two of FYROM’s thorniest issues – the Naming Dispute with Greece and normalised relations with Bulgaria – both of which have hamstrung previous administrations in Skopje in their attempts to further their formal integration with the West.
Juncker’s compliments, however, were tempered with his warning that FYROM’s future in the EU hinged on its ability to continue with ongoing reforms and the government’s ability to address lingering issues of corruption, judicial oversight, and privatisation.
“You (FYROM) are on the right track, if you continue on the path of reforms, in a few months you will enable the (European) Commission to send the EU Council an invitation to open up (accession) negotiations…but we are not quite there yet.”
Zaev will likely walk away from Sunday’s meeting mildly disappointed as he’d hope to secure a specific time frame ahead of this week’s Sofia Summit in Bulgaria that would serve as a direct path to accession talks with Brussels. At the close of the meeting with Juncker, Zaev attempted to remain upbeat saying, “We hope the Commission’s (EU) enlargement report will take stock of the progress we’ve already made.”