Macedonia, Greece Break Diplomatic Ice

Macedonian Premier Nikola Gruevski held a short informal meeting with his new Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, on Thursday in Brussels, the first between leaders of the two countries in several years.

Both prime ministers avoided journalists after the 20-minute discussion, which was held on the sidelines of the EU Council meeting.

In a press release issued after the meeting by the Macedonian delegation, the parlay was described as “courteous” and as being held in a good atmosphere.

“The name issue was of central interest” in the discussion, although no details were discussed, the statement read.

The two leaders agreed that it is important to find a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, Gruevski’s cabinet said.

“There will be a referendum on the name issue and, for me, that issue is closed,” Gruevski said Friday in an interview with Macedonia’s MIA state news agency.

This reiteration of his ruling VMRO-DPNME party’s stated policy position comes despite warnings from high-ranking EU officials that such a move could complicate and delay the possible resolution of the 18-year name spat with Greece.

“I don’t think [in] parliamentary democracies the referendum is the best solution […] Look at our experience,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Wednesday, during a joint press conference with Gruevski, referring to the Irish Lisbon Treaty votes.

The previous Greek government blocked NATO’s issuance of an invitation to Macedonia to become a full pact member and threatened to veto Skopje’s EU accession process.

Athens insists that Skopje’s formal name, Republic of Macedonia, implies that its neighbour is making territorial claims on a northern Greek province.

The election of the Papandreou government has raised hopes for a possible breakthrough. The negotiations on the name dispute are ongoing under UN auspices.

The Greek prime minister reportedly proposed the meeting during a telephone conversation with Gruevski on Wednesday, in which the Macedonian leader congratulated Papandreou on his October 4 election victory and assumption of the prime minister’s post.

The last high-level Athens-Skopje meeting took place in early 2006 in Brussels between the then Macedonian and Greek premiers, Vlado Buckovski and Kostas Karamanlis.

Earlier this month, the European Commission recommended the start of Macedonia’s EU accession talks. Efforts are now being made to resolve the name dispute before December’s EU Council meeting, in which Macedonia hopes to secure a firm date for the start of EU negotiations.

For that to happen, all EU member states, including Greece, will have to vote in favour. Athens has confirmed that this will depend on the resolution of the name spat.

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