Thursday, July 24, 2008

Athens, Skopje vie for EU support in name dispute

Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski has attempted to raise the stakes in his country’s name dispute with Greece by writing to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso complaining about the plight of a “Macedonian minority in Greece” – irking Athens and sparking a diplomatic counter-offensive by Greece at European level.

Negotiations between Skopje and Athens on the use of the name “Macedonia”, to which Greece objects because it says that it reinforces Skopje’s territorial claims in northern Greece, appear to be making no progress. Gruevski’s attempts, in letters to Greek prime minister Costas Karamanlis and now Barroso, to introduce other issues have sparked allegations that Skopje is trying deliberately to obstruct the negotiations process.

In his letter to Barroso, Gruevski raises the same issues that he put in his earlier letter to Karamanlis, including the recognition of a “Macedonian minority” in Greece and the granting of rights and compensation to citizens of the former Yugoslav republic who left Greece during the 1946/49 civil war.

On July 23 2008, Macedonian newspaper Utrinski Vesnik said that Greece was setting off on a quest to hamper the consequences of Gruevski’s letter to Barroso, Bulgarian news agency Focus reported.

Macedonian and Greek media noted on the same day that Greek deputy foreign minister Yannis Valinakis has met French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, French European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet (France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU) and European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn to tell them that Athens was prepared for talks only on the name of Macedonia, and rejected attempts to introduce other issues.

The online version of Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Greek foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis “appeared unconcerned” when asked about Gruevski’s letter to Barroso. “The EU and all its members already have a full and detailed briefing on Greece’s position,” Bakoyannis said.

Macedonian news agency Makfax reported that the EC was delaying responding to the Gruevski letter.

“All I can tell you for the moment is that Commission has received it on Friday last week and currently it’s being looked at, among other things to determine whether any issues raised in the letter are within the competency of the EU or not,” Makfax quoted an EC spokesperson in Brussels as saying.

The same source said that “it’s a Commission policy never to respond off the cuff to subjects that haven’t been looked at in great detail, technically or politically speaking”.

Kathimerini said that diplomats in Athens said they would be surprised if Barroso honoured the letter with a response as “the supposed existence of a ‘Macedonian minority’ – in Greece or anywhere else – has never been debated in Brussels”.

Greece’s main opposition party PASOK criticised the Greek government’s strategy, saying that it had been wrong of Karamnalis to honour Gruevski with a response in the first place.

“The government has managed to open a dialogue on a non-existent issue,” said PASOK’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, Andreas Loverdos.

After Gruevski wrote to Barroso, the Greek media reacted with indignation.

On July 20, Eleftheri Ora wrote: “Gruevski’s letter changes recipient – they were awaiting it in Athens, but the postman took it to Barroso in Brussels. The newspaper said that on the pretext of the name issue, Skopje was bringing to light “its irredentist claims, the territorial demands, the “Macedonian”' language, and everything else entailed”.

The same day, Eleftheros Typos described it as “Gruevski's new, provocative lies against Macedonia, in letter to Barroso,” adding that Skopje was seeking backing in the EU, resorting to “blatant lies and ungrounded claims in speaking of a ‘political assimilation’ of the ‘Macedonians’ by the Greek state, systematic measures prohibiting the use of the ‘Macedonian’ language, and of discrimination”.

Greece has not limited its diplomatic moves to Europe. In Washington, Greek ambassador to the US Alexandros Mallias briefed the White House, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, members of the US congress and the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain on the Greek positions. Greek media reported that a letter also had been sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

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