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Macedonian PM: Greece is avoiding talks over name dispute

By Oliver Joy, CNN
updated 6:14 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The dispute over Macedonia's state name with Greece began when the country gained independence in 1991
  • In 2011 the International Court of Justice ruled that Greece was wrong to block Macedonia's bid to NATO in 2008
  • Macedonia already "sufficiently" meets the political criteria to open negotiations, according to European Commission

(CNN) -- Macedonia is "frustrated" by Greece's efforts to block its European Union membership over a longstanding identity dispute, the country's Prime Minister has said.

In an interview with CNN, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said that Greece is "very successful" in making the Balkan nation look "guilty" over the use of the word "Macedonia" in its state name.

"Greece is not ready to make a compromise ... so we cannot solve the issue," he said.

Gruevski said the Greek government is "rejecting" Macedonia's advances to open talks and revealed that he tried to contact Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, but his offers were rejected.

Gruevski added: "The international law is on our side and I believe that if Greece decides to respect international law, we can start the negotiations with the EU and we can join NATO immediately."

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The name dispute between the two countries has rumbled on since Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 leading to a U.N. accord signed by both parties four years later.

The disagreement centers around the use of the name Macedonia as well as symbols and figures used by the FYROM: these are traditionally considered part of Greek culture from the period when the region was part of ancient Greece.

The most prominent of these figures is Alexander the Great, Greek king of Macedon, who went on to forge one of the largest empires of the ancient world. In 2011, the Macedonian government unveiled a 39 ft statue of the legendary leader in the central square of the nation's capital, Skopje.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 2011 that Greece was wrong to block Macedonia's bid to join NATO in 2008.

The ICJ said: "Greece, by objecting to the admission of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM] to NATO, has breached its obligation" to a 1995 Interim Accord not to block Macedonian applications made under its current name.

In response to Gruevski's claims, Konstantinos Koutras, spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told CNN that a number of Samaras' predecessors had met with the Macedonian Prime Minister, but that they were simply "photo opportunities and a fa├žade."

Koutras said: "A whole generation in FYROM is being poisoned with bitter feelings against Greece, which is branded as the culprit for all evils their country is being faced with."

He added: "If Skopje had shown equal degree of commitment, the name issue would have been settled."

When asked whether the government would consider removing "Macedonia" from its name, Gruevski said: "There are many parts of this problem... if there is a dialogue, I believe we can find a solution."

But Kurt Volker, former U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told CNN that while modifying the name is possible, taking "Macedonia" out of the name completely is not under discussion.

Volker said: "I think that the Macedonians have moved quite far and I think that they are prepared to make an agreement on a modified name for the country for the purposes of being recognized in international organizations."

However, he added: "That doesn't go as far as the Greeks have insisted. They wanted to change everything including for the Macedonians to change their constitution. That's just pie in the sky, that's never going to happen."

Macedonia submitted its application to join the EU in 2004 but is yet to open negotiations with legislators over EU status.

EU membership would give Macedonia -- a country of just 2.1 million people according to Eurostat -- access to the world's largest trading bloc and representation at the European institutions in Brussels.

Macedonia already has free trade agreements with a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Norway, Turkey and Ukraine in addition to states within Europe's economic and political union.

The international law is on our side and I believe that if Greece decides to respect international law, we can start the negotiations with the EU.
Macedonia Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski

According to an assessment by the European Commission, Macedonia "sufficiently" meets the political criteria to open negotiations.

Peter Stano, spokesman for European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, told CNN that the Brussels-based legislature has recommended for five years in a row to open accession negotiations with Macedonia.

He added: "Together we are stronger, and especially in the Western Balkans, we contribute to the reconciliation among nations and to guaranteeing peace and reinforcing stability in a region marked by conflicts in a not so distant past."

Gruevski said that membership for all countries in the Balkans will provide "long term stability" to the region and ultimately attract more foreign investment.

"Personal income tax is 10%, profit tax is 10%. The other taxes are also very low, so as a package we are offering the best tax package to the companies that are coming."

With low inflation and growth forecast at 2.8% this year, Macedonia could represent a significant opportunity for investors looking to tap southeast Europe.

Asked whether Macedonia would have to raise taxes if they gained entry into the EU, Gruevski said: "We will try not to go up but when the time comes we will see."

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