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Macedonia's PM hopes for a solution to dispute with Greece by June

FILE PHOTO: The leader of the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev goes on stage to declare victory for the local elections in Skopje, Macedonia, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski - RC1BB73162C0

ATHENS (Reuters) - Macedonia’s prime minister said on Sunday that it could reach a solution with Athens to a decades-long dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name by June, a move that could unblock the country’s ambition to join the European Union.

Athens has blocked the ex-Yugoslav republic’s attempts to join NATO and objects to its EU membership bid because it says the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim over Greece’s own northerly region of that name.

“I believe that it is possible to reach an agreement by the end of the first half of 2018”, Zoran Zaev said in an interview with Greek Alpha TV without giving more details.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said on Thursday that his country wants to settle a decades-old row this year over the name of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, responding to Zaev’s call in November.

Kotzias will meet Deputy Prime Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, in Athens on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

The small republic of about 2 million people declared independence in 1991, avoiding the violence that accompanied much of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

But Greece is withholding support for Macedonia’s further integration into international bodies, including NATO, until it agrees to change its name.

“Our future is within EU and Nato”, Zaev added.

Athens has only agreed that the country can be referred to in international venues as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, as an interim measure until the dispute is resolved.

Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle