The visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias to Skopje March 22-23 was a clear attempt to reboot the dragging 2018 cycle of the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute negotiations, which nearly ground to a halt in March.
This visit has taken on a bit more of a symbolic aspect since the renaming of Skopje airport weeks ago made it diplomatically acceptable for a Greek Foreign Minister to fly in aboard the first direct flight from Athens in 12 years, as opposed to earlier visits conducted with other forms of transportation. And this visit also allowed for a deeper substantive dialogue than possible earlier as both sides have exchanged their initial drafts of proposed settlement documents. A continuation of the dialogue is scheduled for March 30 in Vienna with UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz present.
Foreign Minister Kotzias dined with Macedonia/FYROM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov after arriving in Skopje. Formal consultations were held the morning of March 23, as were meetings with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and opposition leaders, but not with Macedonia/FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov, who is allied with the hardline opposition in Skopje.
At the generally positive press conference following the morning consultations, Kotzias sounded both determined to and optimistic about reaching an agreement, warning against the fear seen in previous years to take bold steps to change the status quo. Reservations about the need for constitutional changes were heard from Dimitrov, which is understandable in view of the difficulty this entails for Skopje. It also remains unclear whether the Greek requirement for a single name for all purposes known by the Latin term “erga omnes” will be acceptable. The name “GornjaMacedonia” (one word, untranslated) is known to be Athens first choice.
It will take a few days to fully register the extent to which the signs of progress coming from this visit reverberate through both countries’ political systems. In Greece, any signal that Athens will accept an already difficult compound-name solution but is not demanding a finalization of constitutional changes in Macedonia/FYROM before a NATO admission deal is agreed will set off tsunami level shockwaves within the ruling Syriza-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition, potentially leading to a fracture (this is even before one contemplates getting the requisite parliamentary approval). Even hinting that Greece can accept a compound/hybrid name will be hard enough this particular week in view of Greece’s March 25 Independence Day celebrations when nationalist fervour rises sharply.
Interestingly enough, President Donald J Trump did not mention the negotiations in his remarks at the annual White House Greek Independence Day celebration held on March 22, although other invited speakers made light references to the issue.
In Skopje, we witnessed demonstrations March 4 against any possible agreement leading to a name change, but the attendance was not much more than 10,000 compared to a demonstration at least 20 times as large held in Athens with the same message February 4.
Hoping to avoid any political minefields, Matthew Nimetz has kept as low a profile as possible. With his next formal appearance as mediator March 30 in Vienna, it is clear his work continues. The focus now will be to produce a single draft agreement from the drafts provided by both countries. Nimetz had previously expressed the hope that he would be able to make a recommendation on whether an agreement on the Name Dispute would be possible this year after approximately two months of consultations, and it appears that time has just about run out.