SOFIA (Reuters) - Greece and Macedonia said on Thursday they had made progress in talks to settle a decades-old name dispute, though Athens cautioned it was early to talk of a deal.
The name of Macedonia has been a source of contention between the two countries for decades, frustrating hopes of the tiny but strategically placed Balkan state of joining NATO, and the European Union, where Greece has veto rights.
“I believe we have covered a great part of the distance, but we have more to cover,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told journalists. He said progress had been substantive but that negotiations were complex and ‘multi-layered’.
“We are not yet in a position to speak about a deal.”
Tsipras spoke after meeting his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev in Sofia, where they attended a summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders.
“We have discussed one (specific) solution to the name dispute that could be acceptable for both sides, but we need to have further discussions in our countries,” Zaev said.
Tsipras said he hoped for a meeting with Zaev next month, before an EU summit which is scheduled for late June. Athens, Tsipras said, wanted a comprehensive deal that would “stand the test of time.”
Macedonia’s NATO and EU accession process has been blocked by Greece which disputes the former Yugoslav republic’s name, saying it implies a territorial claim over its northern province of the same name.
A deal between the two countries, will open the way for Macedonia to start membership talks with the EU and NATO.
It’s a sensitive topic for millions of Greeks, who see the name as an attempt by neighbours to piggy-back on Greece’s cultural heritage, especially since the Greek province of Macedonia was the birthplace of Alexander the Great.
The dispute also triggered a 19-month trade embargo on Macedonia by Greece in the early 1990s. It ended when the two states signed an interim accord under which Greece agreed to recognize its neighbor under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the provisional name under which it entered the UN in 1993.
The state is known either as the acronym FYROM in Greece, or Skopje, the name of its capital. However, most states in the world call it Macedonia.
Zaev said the two sides would continue talking “even if we miss the June deadline”. “We are solving the dispute in order to strengthen the dignity and identity of the citizens in both countries,” he added.
Editing by Richard Balmforth