European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has urged Macedonia to resolve a long-standing name dispute with neighboring Greece so the country can open membership talks with the European Union.
Juncker arrived in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, on February 25 in the first stop of a Western Balkan tour intended to promote the EU's new strategy for the region.
Juncker, speaking alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, praised Skopje's "pace of reforms" and said the former Yugoslav republic was "on the right track."
Juncker praised Macedonia for concluding a friendship treaty with neighboring Bulgaria and the recent progress Greece and Macedonia have made to settle their differences over the name of Macedonia.
Greece objects to the former Yugoslav republic's use of the name Macedonia, which Athens says could imply territorial claims over its own northern region of the same name.
Macedonia has said it is ready to add a geographical qualifier to its name to help resolve the dispute. An agreement could include Macedonia adding "Upper," "New," or "North" to its name.
As a goodwill gesture to Greece, Macedonia is changing the name of its main airport, Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, to Skopje International Airport and the airport operator has started removing the lettering.
"If you continue with the reforms for a few more months from now, you will allow the [European] Commission to address to the [European] Council an invitation to start [EU] accession negotiations," Juncker said.
After his visit to Macedonia, Juncker will make stops in Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
Among the six countries, the commission considers Serbia and Montenegro as current front-runners toward accession and the new strategy says they could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.
The EU has insisted that the six countries still have many obstacles to overcome before joining the bloc, including regarding corruption, the rule of law, and relations with their neighbors.
EU member states Croatia and Slovenia are still locked in a border dispute stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Juncker’s tour of the Western Balkans comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Belgrade this week for a two-day visit aimed at bolstering long-standing ties with Serbia.
During the visit, Lavrov welcomed Serbia’s drive to join the EU, but also vowed that Moscow would remain engaged with the Balkan country no matter what happens.
Although Serbia is seeking to join the EU, it continues to nurture close ties with Moscow and has said it will not join the EU's economic sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
With reporting by AP