UN envoy 'very hopeful' about solving Macedonia name dispute

Carole LANDRY
A dispute has raged for 27 years over the name of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Greece maintains that the use of Macedonia suggests that Skopje has territorial claims to its own northern region of the same name

A UN envoy declared Wednesday he was "very hopeful" that a solution was within reach to end a 27-year dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the former Yugoslav republic's name.

During talks at the United Nations, UN envoy Matthew Nimetz presented a proposal for a compromise to envoys that will now be discussed in Athens and Skopje.

Nimetz said he will travel to Greece and Macedonia soon to discuss the proposed solution, which was not made public.

"I am very hopeful that this process is moving in a positive direction," Nimetz told reporters following the two-hour meeting at UN headquarters.

Greece's objections to the use of the name Macedonia since the Balkan country's independence in 1991 has hampered Skopje's bid to join the European Union and NATO.

Macedonia is known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the United Nations, but the Security Council acknowledged that this was a provisional name when it agreed to membership.

"I view this as a good set of ideas, a compromise, and a package that both sides should feel comfortable with and lead to a dignified and satisfactory solution," said Nimetz.

Some of the solutions floated include using the name New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia, but Greek nationalists argue that there should be no reference to Macedonia at all.

Greece maintains that the use of Macedonia suggests that Skopje has territorial claims to its own Macedonia -- a northern region that boasts the port cities of Thessaloniki and Kavala and was the center of Alexander the Great's ancient kingdom, a source of Greek pride.

- Leaders want a solution -

In a rebuke to Greek hardliners, Nimetz said it was "not realistic" to expect Macedonia not to have that name "in some form" in its official designation.

Several rounds of talks aimed at settling the dispute have failed, but the envoy said he believed the outcome would be different this time.

"I do think so. I really believe that we have leadership in both Athens and Skopje that genuinely want a solution," he told reporters, flanked by Macedonia's US Ambassador Vasko Naumovski and Greek envoy Adamantios Vassilakis.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said this month that he believed a solution could be found by July, while his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras has said the issue should be settled this year.

Tsipras this week pushed back against the influential Greek Orthodox Church after it said any compromise with Skopje should not include the use of "Macedonia."

The proposed name is expected to be put to a referendum in Skopje and presented to the Greek parliament for endorsement, which could stoke nationalist fervor.

Church groups in Greece are already planning protests over the weekend.

Nimetz, an American who has been grappling with the name dispute for over 25 years, appealed to opposition leaders to be constructive in their response to the proposal.

"This dispute has gone on for 25 years. Should it go on for another 25 years? You know, is that going to be helpful to the people, to the young people in the area? I don't think so," he said.