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EU Upbeat On Macedonia Name, Urges Reforms In Balkans

Johannes Hahn (file photo)

A senior official says the European Union is "very confident" that a 27-year-old dispute over Macedonia's name, which has hampered the former Yugoslav republic's progress toward NATO and EU membership, will be resolved by the end of June.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn spoke upon arrival in Sofia on February 16 for talks between EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from countries that are candidates to join the 28-state bloc.

Asked whether the dispute between Macedonia and Greece could be settled during Bulgaria's EU presidency of the bloc, which ends in June, Hahn said he was "very confident about this."

Greece has long objected to Macedonia's name, contending that it suggests that Skopje has claims to the territory and heritage of the region in northern Greece that has the same name.

The dispute between Greece and Macedonia, which for now is formally known at the UN as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), has persisted since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Amid a flurry of negotiations, UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has voiced optimism that a solution is within reach.

Leaders of the two countries have also said progress has been made in settling the dispute, and there are indications that an agreement -- if one is reached -- could include Macedonia adding "Upper," "New," or "North" to its name.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told reporters in Sofia that his country has matured and no longer needs "roots back 2,000 years to feel self-confident."

"It's better to cooperate and compete on things that matter today than compete on who had more glorious victories and defeats in our rich history," he said.

"We have the same approach towards the difference we have with Greece," he said.

Macedonia became a candidate for EU membership in December 2005, but EU-member Greece blocked the start of negotiations, which requires unanimous agreement by all EU states.

Hahn also reiterated a frequent message from the EU to Western Balkans countries that are prospective members, saying they will have to implement substantial reforms before they can be allowed in.

A new EU strategy says that Serbia and Montenegro, which are considered the front-runners among the six Western Balkans countries that are not members, could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.

"Everybody realizes that the conditions have to be met, that quality comes before speed, that the strategy is not an invitation to do away with conditionality," Hahn said.

In addition to Serbia and Montenegro, the Western Balkans countries that are not EU members are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

Also speaking in Sofia, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the strategy addresses "the entire region" and "doesn't create different boxes or categories among the regional parties we have [in] the Western Balkans."

She said that 2025 "is a realistic possible perspective...not only for the two countries that are currently negotiating but also for others that could start to negotiate."

Laying out the new strategy on February 6, Mogherini expressed hope that all six countries will join "not in a faraway future but in our generation."

With reporting by AFP and Reuters