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Macedonia's Zaev 'Convinced' Agreement On Name Dispute Can Be Reached With Greece

Macedonian PM Links Name Issue To EU Referendum
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WATCH: Macedonian PM Links Name Issue To EU Referendum

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has told RFE/RL that he remains "convinced" a solution can be found to the dispute with Greece over his country's official name, but he said any constitutional change would have to be decided by a referendum.

In an interview published on April 29, Zaev said such a referendum could be held at the same time as a vote by citizens on whether Macedonia should join the European Union, a move the prime minister supports.

Greece, an EU member, has for years blocked Macedonia's efforts to join the bloc, arguing that its name implies a claim on the Greek province of Macedonia.

The two countries appear closer than ever to an agreement, with Macedonia reportedly considering adding a modifier to its moniker, such as "Upper," "Northern," or the historical name "Vardar," to satisfy Greek demands.

Constitutional Change?

Greece has insisted that, as well as internationally, the name change be used in Macedonia itself for official matters -- a move that would likely require changes to the country's constitution.

Zaev said that Greece is seeking "a change in our constitution with regards to the name change."

"Most probably the final decision [on a name change] will be tied to the vote by Macedonia, by its citizens, on handing over some sovereignty to the European Union, on becoming an EU member -- something that we want to see," he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Zaev said he is "convinced that with creativity, a solution [to the name dispute] can be found."

"But, it is a political question, because both sides must find a mutually acceptable solution that will need to be put into place by official bodies in both countries," he said.

He added that, in the end, he -- along with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias -- "can make an agreement, but it is the institutions and people of the two countries who will have the final word, and they will make the final decisions."

Workers dismantle an "Alexander the Great" sign from the airport in Skopje on February 24 as a gesture of goodwill toward Greece.
Workers dismantle an "Alexander the Great" sign from the airport in Skopje on February 24 as a gesture of goodwill toward Greece.

Matthew Nimetz, the United Nations envoy on the matter, has expressed optimism on the possibility of reaching an agreement between the two sides, especially after the most recent round of talks ended on April 25 in Vienna.

Nimetz said after the meeting that Macedonia's Dimitrov and Greece's Kotzias remained determined to resolve the dispute.

"It was an intense discussion, very cordial and...both sides are very dedicated to reaching a solution. The process will continue in the next weeks," Nimetz told reporters.

Macedonian leaders are hoping to resolve their differences this year to accelerate the country's bid to join the EU.

The dispute arose in 1991 when Macedonia declared independence following the breakup of communist Yugoslavia.

Athens objected to its neighbor using the Macedonia name because it has a northern province by the same name and contended that Macedonia's move implied territorial claims on that province.

'Concrete Goal'

Negotiations over the matter languished for years, but progress was made after Macedonia agreed in February to change the name of the capital's Alexander the Great airport to Skopje International Airport in a goodwill gesture to Greece.

The motorway linking Macedonia with Greece was also renamed the Friendship Highway.

"I believe that we have never had better circumstances to find a complete solution that will last for centuries and will remain forever," Zaev told the AFP news agency earlier this month.

On April 27, Zaev said he expects to soon secure a date to begin EU and NATO membership talks.

"We have a concrete goal ahead of us," he said. "We have never been closer to receiving a date to open membership talks with the EU."

"We are working to successfully solve the name issue. Solving this issue will open the doors to begin membership talks with the EU and to enter NATO."

With reporting by RFE/RL Macedonian Service's Zoran Kuka, Reuters, and AFP