The barrage of Greek domestic politics and this week’s almost-clashes with Turkey in the Aegean have combined to get the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute talks off the front pages at least for a while. While contacts continued in Vienna and Sofia, diplomatic progress apparently ground to a crawl amid indications that some of the parties involved may now consider a push for a solution before the NATO July Bucharest Summit to be unworkable.
Athens has been dealing with two separate front-burner issues this week which clearly pulled attention off of the Name Dispute discussions. The dispute with Turkey over the Aegean islet of Imia was, of course, front page news most of the week and has kept the Greek military on edge. Turkish naval actions and diplomatic pronouncements in the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus concerning ongoing oil/gas exploration work have also been an important consideration. The domestic political battle over the Novartis bribery scandal moved to a second phase with main opposition party leaders (New Democracy) hitting the government and specific leaders with defamation lawsuits, as well as sustained parliamentary challenges.
On the Name Dispute, a hastily scheduled bilateral meeting between both countries’ foreign ministers was held in Vienna on February 12-13 with UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz present. Curiously the main point in the joint press release was simply that bilateral talks would continue. The Vienna discussions occurred while Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was in Ankara on an official visit, including a meeting with his Turkish counterpart. A second bilateral meeting of foreign ministers was held on February 16 in Sofia on the sidelines of a long-scheduled informal EU foreign ministers meeting.
In Skopje, rumours surfaced that Zaev has quietly requested government-friendly press outlets to de-emphasise reporting on the Name Dispute until at least through September. This is being interpreted in Skopje as an indication that things will move to a slower track, which is not exactly supportive of what Nimetz has been saying, which is that “now is the time for a deal.”
Meanwhile, the “renaming” process continued with the publication in the official government gazette of the Macedonian/FYROM government’s decision to rechristen Skopje’s airport and main national highway by removing the word “Alexander”, making those changes, promised in Davos, official. Zaev also told the local press during a trip outside Skopje mid-week that he believed “three of seven outstanding issues have been resolved” and that it was time to focus on the remaining open items with Greece.