By Sarantis Michalopoulos and Zoran Radosavljevic
(EurActiv) — Macedonia’s new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, has signaled a possible shift in the country’s sour relations with neighbouring Greece, which have blocked Skopje’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.
In an interview with Macedonia’s state television on Wednesday (7 June), the Social Democrat said the former conservative government of Nikola Gruevski had provoked Greece by erecting statues of historical figures such as Alexander the Great and renaming roads and airports in his honour as part of the €600 million “Skopje 2014” project.
The Gruevski government had blamed its southern neighbour and EU member Greece for unjustly keeping Macedonia away from mainstream Europe. The Social Democrats, while in opposition, had said Gruevski’s aggressive rhetoric was only fuelling the row instead of seeking a compromise.
The two countries have been locked in a row over Macedonia’s name, which Greece sees as territorial grab because it is the same as that of a northern Greek province. Despite UN- mediated talks and pressure from Brussels, there has been no progress in the 25-year-old stalemate, particularly after Gruevski took office and started a campaign to overhaul Macedonia’s national image.
Zaev, who became prime minister last week, told the television moves like those had hurt relations with Greece and vowed to stop them under his leadership.
However, asked if his government planned to demolish some of the large statues in Skopje, Zaev said the financial cost to remove them was too big.
A new momentum?
Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras spoke to Zaev on the phone on Wednesday to congratulate him. Greek media reported that the two prime ministers had discussed a further development of bilateral relations, possible confidence-building measures and the state of Macedonia’s EU and NATO bids.
Tsipras reiterated the Greek position on the name issue, which rules out the one-word name of “Macedonia” while backing a composite name.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said last week the security and stability in Macedonia, which is officially referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, were essential for the whole region.
“The unity, integrity, and stability of our northern neighbor are of great importance today. All its neighbors must help to ensure a better future for the country itself,” Kotzias noted.
“This is our main concern and our opinion is – and not all agree with that – that the solution of the name issue in a creative and democratic way will contribute to and facilitate the country’s future course,” he added.
Commission hails “clear commitment”
In a further sign of rapprochement, Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement said on Wednesday that the executive is planning to send a group of legal experts to the Balkan country to help its government effectively address issues related to the rule of law.
According to Hahn, the mission is part of the EU’s “readiness to work with and to help the
new government in the implementation of the reforms”.
EURACTIV.com contacted the Spokesperson for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Maja Kocijancic, and asked if Zaev’s comments were a step in the right direction and could help revive the momentum for the country’s EU entry talks.
Kocijancic replied, “The EU recalls that maintaining good neighborly relations, including a
negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential.”
“In this regard, the EU notes positively the clear commitment of the new government, as well as by the main political party leaders under the Przino agreement,” she added.
Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slav Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present. The government of Macedonia however says the majority of the population are not Slavs, but descendants from Alexander the Great.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia’s EU accession, the so-called ‘name dispute’ with Greece appears to be the biggest.
Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – the Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece vowed to veto Macedonia’s participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
Although ‘Macedonia’ is recognised as the country’s constitutional name by most EU countries, the name dispute with Greece has led to an impasse for the country’s membership of both the EU and Nato. UK, Poland, Romania and 13 other EU countries call the country Macedonia, while France, Germany, Spain and 9 other EU members call it Fyrom.
Greece also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. The airport in Skopje was named after Alexander the Great, who is seen by Greece as a hero of its ancient history. Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great.