Prague, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The visit by Greek Foreign Minister Theodhoros Pangalos to Skopje this week, the first one by a Greek cabinet member since Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia nearly five years ago, marks a significant improvement in relations between the two Balkan states.
It seems that the rebellion in neighboring Albania and the ensuing threat of new waves of refugees and nationalist unrest spilling over the Greek border provided the impulse for Pangalos' visit to Skopje and Belgrade.
Pangalos told reporters in Skopje that the situation in Albania has created "an immediate danger of a wider crisis developing that would result in mass migration from Albania to neighboring countries." He added that the visit was "the result of a decision by the Greek government that the regional situation demands cooperationS with Skopje.
After meeting Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, Pangalos told Greek state radio that Athens, Skopje and Belgrade share "a common position on guaranteeing and safeguarding existing borders in the Balkans and on creating democratic regimes that will respect the human rights of all citizens." He went on to say that "we have a common desire to maintain security and order in the area and if necessary to take the humanitarian measures imposed by the needs of our fellow men."
The Greek Foreign Minister said Greece has a limited capacity for accepting refugees, noting that 300,000 Albanians, most of whom had fled in 1991-92, still live and work in Greece. Greek news agencies say 3,000 Albanian refugees have arrived in Greece in the last three weeks.
"The true solution is for the Albanians to live and work in Albania under acceptable conditions," said Pangalos.
Pangalos described his meeting with Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov as having been held "in a very good atmosphere." The two agreed to meet again and announced Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis will also visit Skopje.
Pangalos and Gligorov apparently refrained from discussing the sensitive issue of Macedonia's name, reportedly avoiding any reference to Macedonia's name during their nearly two hours of talks.
Greece objects to Skopje's use of the term "Macedonia," since it is also the name Greeks use for a large part of Northern Greece. Greece says that the use of the name implies Skopje has territorial pretensions toward Greece.
But Macedonia has already made changes to its flag and constitution, ending a two-year Greek trade embargo and resulting in UN-sponsored talks in New York on the name issue.
Pangalos said the two countries are trying to find a solution to the problem but added that this would " be no substitute for the UN-sponsored talks in New York." These talks are to resume April 2 but the Greek negotiator, Ambassador Christos Zachanakis has said that the next round of talks was unlikely to result in any significant progress.
While in the Macedonian capital, Pangalos also met Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski and Foreign Minister Ljubomir Frchkovski. Pangalos said that two countries will be in contact in the coming weeks and might formulate a common position in advance of the Balkan foreign ministers meeting in Salonika on June 9.
Macedonian President Gligorov told reporters the visit marked a "turning point toward future friendly ties" between the two countries.
The visit to Skopje has prompted Greek opposition conservative New Democracy party to accuse Pangalos of strengthening Skopje's hand and demanded a "convincing explanation." The conservative Greek daily "Eleftheros Typos" said the visit had weakened Greece's negotiating position.
But most of the Greek press views the Pangalos visit favorably, describing it as a breakthrough for Greek diplomacy and a boost to its efforts to lead in the Balkans. The daily "Exousia" yesterday exulted that Pangalos' visit was historic, marking "the beginning of a real improvement in relations" and predicted the "visit will generate a solution to the name dispute." The daily "Eleftherotypia" said the "political leadership in Skopje appreciated this initiative and will help resolve the name issue".
The Macedonian press has also been very upbeat on the visit. The state news agency (MIC) says the visit has "broken the ice." The government daily "Nova Makedonia" noted that "Albania Brought Athens and Skopje together." The Macedonian daily says the two sides agreed to maintain existing borders and to respect minority rights. Greece has consistently denied the existence of a Macedonian Slavic minority within its borders, referring to the remaining unassimilated Slavs in the far north of the country as "Slavophone Greeks."