Macedonia is closer than any time in the last decade to settling a long-standing dispute over its name with Greece which has dashed the Balkan country's hopes of joining NATO and the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said.
"I am very pleased and relieved that...there is movement in the talks," Merkel told reporters at a joint news conference in Berlin with visiting Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on February 21.
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 and Greece have recently stepped up efforts to resolve the dispute.
The foreign ministers of the two countries met the United Nations special envoy Matthew Nimetz in Vienna earlier this month to discuss the issue.
"In the last 10 years, the solution has not been as close as now and it would be wonderful if the remaining difficulties can be bridged," Merkel said.
The dispute has hampered Macedonia's efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Greece is a member of both entities.
Negotiations between the two neighbors have been inconclusive since 1991, when Macedonia gained independence from the former Yugoslavia.
It was admitted into the United Nations in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Now Macedonia says it is ready to add a geographical qualifier to its name to help resolve the dispute with Greece.
An agreement could include Macedonia adding "upper," "new," or "north" to its name.
Zaev said this week he hoped to settle the row in time to see Macedonia join NATO in July.
Merkel on February 21 also urged Zaev, a social democrat who took over last year, to press on with reforms to improve the rule of law and tap EU assistance funds more efficiently to develop infrastructure.
The German chancellor did not want to speculate about a possible EU accession date, insisting that Macedonia must first comply with the conditions.
Zaev said there was "no alternative" for Macedonia and all the other countries in the Western Balkans than to become NATO and EU members.
"I am convinced that with the strength of our citizens, through the reforms we are making and with the support provided by Germany and the EU member states, the whole region will very soon become full members of both NATO and the EU," he also said.
With reporting by Reuters and dpa