Greece Sees 'Momentum' on Skopje

By George Gilson

WITH Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis' diplomatic push for backing Greece's position on the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) name dispute getting positive feedback and indications of growing American sympathy for Greek sensitivities, the Greek foreign ministry is optimistic for a solution for the first time in over a decade.

The signals sent during the visit of US Nato Ambassador Victoria Nuland to Skopje on November 8 were received positively by Athens. Nuland reportedly told top Fyrom government officials that it is time they met the qualification stipulated in the Nato charter - to maintain good neighbourly relations.

The US official is said to have stressed that Greece is an important neighbour that has a say in Skopje's Nato membership, and with which relations are not progressing well. Fyrom officials were urged to invest in the UN­mediated negotiations process to resolve the name dispute.

"The Americans now appear to be genuinely interested in a mutually agreed solution," a high­level Greek diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Athens News.

"The 2004 us move to recognise Skopje as 'Republic of Macedonia' was designed to guarantee that part of a composite name would be Macedonia and to convince Greece of that. What remains is to finish the job," the diplomat noted.

But just a week after Nuland's statements, on November 14, US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns told Congress that the Bush administration objects to Greece vetoing Fyrom's Nato entry on the basis of the name dispute. Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis responded that the desire to avoid a veto makes the need to reach a name compromise, under the UN mandate, more pressing.

Greece insists that the composite name resulting from a compromise (eg Republic of Northern Macedonia) be used in all Skopje's bilateral relations and in international organisations. Fyrom Ambassador Nikola Dimitrov opened talks with Skopje's maximalist position - one compromise name for Greece and the constitutional name "Republic of Macedonia" for all others.

Compromise talks

UN mediator Matthew Nimetz is due in Athens by the end of November and will then visit Skopje to feel out the two sides' reaction to the ideas that he presented them with in New York on November 1. Nimetz reportedly set guidelines on how a rapprochement should be undertaken, suggesting that the two sides prepare public opinion for an eventual compromise.

Though the talks were to be secret, Fyrom Premier Nikola Gruevski's immediate dismissal of the prospect of Fyrom being called internationally anything different than its constitutional name of "Republic of Macedonia" revealed that this was precisely what Nimetz asked for.

"There, Gruevski broke the rules, saying that he won't negotiate the name, which is exactly what the UN Security Council mandate instructs the two sides to negotiate," a Greek diplomatic source told the Athens News. The Greek side suggests Washington was annoyed by the Fyrom leader's impetuous reaction.

But experts also suggest that Gruevski's harsh public rhetoric may well be geared to domestic public opinion. The Fyrom leader may be saying, in other words, that despite his hardline reaction, international pressure is strong.

"There is a positive new momentum at the moment. The question is how we will capitalise on it," the Greek diplomat told the Athens News.

The Greek foreign ministry believes that the enthusiasm of Fyrom's youthful leadership has made two big mistakes in the eyes of powerful internationals. The first was to rename airports in the name of Alexander the Great, thus snatching a historic Greek name and symbol. The other was to violate UN rules when Fyrom General Assembly speaker Srdjan Kerim summoned Fyrom President Branko Crvenkovski as president of the "Republic of Macedonia".

The Greek government believes that its strong, persistent statements over the last year that Athens is prepared to veto Skopje's Nato admission next year has put the name dispute high on the diplomatic agenda, persuading internationals that Greece means business and is ready to settle.

"We are approaching the type of peak that we had in 1992, except in no way as frenetic. Greece is more self-confident, and we don't have the collective hysteria of 1992 [with hundreds of thousands pounding the pavement in mass protests]. Now we are the moderates and they are the radicals," the Greek diplomat said, noting an example.

The Kosovo equation

When Fyrom Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki, mocking Greek sensitivities, recently suggested that his country could be called "Former Ottoman Republic of Macedonia", a Greek diplomat quipped that the Ottomans only had villayets of Thessaloniki and Pristina, and never Macedonia.

An equally major concern for both Skopje and Athens is the final status of Kosovo, which many believe could declare unilateral independence after December 1O, a UN deadline for US-EU-Russia talks with the two sides. With its own large Albanian minority champing at the bit for expanded rights, Skopje supports quick Kosovo independence. Fyrom's overarching concern is delimiting its border with Kosovo and finding a modus vivendi with its huge Albanian minority (over one-third of the population).

European Union countries such as Greece are trying to balance the dual aim of maintaining Euro-Atlantic ties while preserving European cohesion. Greek diplomacy believes it is unclear how many EU countries would recognise unilateral Kosovo independence, yet they will all face the possible repercussions of such a move.

Many believe that the Ahtisaari plan for supervised independence is no longer the Bible, and that just as it is well-nigh impossible for Belgrade to exercise authority in Pristina, it is extremely difficulty for the Kosovo Albanians to exercise authority north of the divided city of Mitrovica, crossed by the Ibar River.

(Posting Date 27 November 2007)

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