Greece welcomes Macedonian move to settle name dispute
Helena Smith in Athens
Balkan state considering alternative names such as Upper Macedonia or New Macedonia.
Greece has welcomed an announcement by the Macedonian prime minister that his country is willing to change its name, in a sign that one of the world’s most vexing disputes could soon be solved.
Athens described Zoran Zaev’s readiness to add a geographical qualifier as “a positive step” that would dispel fears of territorial claims over Greece’s adjacent region of Macedonia.
Among the new names being considered are Upper Macedonia, New Macedonia, Northern Macedonia and Macedonia (Skopje), according to well-placed diplomats.
“This is an important development,” said the Greek foreign ministry in a statement released shortly after Zaev said the Balkan state would also rename its airport and national motorway.
“We hope that it marks the start of a new chapter in the relations between our two countries and peoples.”
Compromise is unpopular in sections of Greek society. On Wednesday, the Greek Orthodox church held an extraordinary meeting of its governing synod to discuss the name issue.
Clerics were among the hundreds of thousands of people who protested in Athens on Sunday over the prospect of a solution that would include the word Macedonia.
The region of Macedonia, formerly part of the Ottoman empire, spreads across Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Athens has objected to its northern neighbour’s use of the name since it proclaimed independence in 1991, arguing that it projected irredentist ambitions.
Addressing reporters late on Tuesday, Zaev said the country’s Skopje Alexander the Great airport would henceforth be known as Skopje international airport, and its main road route to Greece would drop a similar moniker and be called the Friendship highway.
Workers remove a road sign with the former name of Skopje’s airport. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA
It is the first time since 1993, when the landlocked country joined the UN under a provisional name, that Skopje has made such concessions. All three moves were described as confidence-building measures by both sides. Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is as keen as Zaev to reach a settlement.
The two leaders are under intense political pressure to resolve the row, which has held up the Balkan nation’s drive to join Nato and the EU. The 27-year-old dispute is also blamed for endangering western-style liberal politics across Europe’s most historically volatile region, where growing Russian intervention is increasingly a cause for alarm.
Greece used its veto to stop Skopje joining Nato in 2008 and has since blocked EU accession talks, despite the country taking significant steps to open up its economy. Efforts to settle the row have often come up against nationalist opposition on both sides of the frontier.
Though a progressive on national issues, Tsipras is in government with the rightwing Independent Greeks party, which has taken a hard line on the name row.
James Ker-Lindsay, a professor of politics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said: “From the perspective of Skopje, I think we are potentially close to an agreement.
“My big worry is Greece. Although the current Greek government wants to see the issue resolved, it is so politicised it is hard to see how they could push it through.”
Greece’s public order minister disclosed last week that the foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, and several other senior government officials had received death threats for their conciliatory stance on the issue.