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Macedonia, Greece willing to solve dispute, UN

March 05, 2008 3:58 PM

THESSALONIKI, Greece-A U.N. mediator said Wednesday that Greece and Macedonia are both displaying the will to solve a dispute over Macedonia's name, which threatens to derail NATO's Balkan expansion.

Matthew Nimetz said both sides "expressed a great desire" for a settlement, which is becoming increasingly urgent before an April 2-4 NATO expansion summit. But their positions remain apart, he said.

Macedonia, Albania and Croatia all hope to be invited to join the alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.

But NATO member Greece is threatening to veto Macedonia's accession bid, arguing the tiny Balkan country's name could imply claims on its own northern province of Macedonia.

"Neither government was able to feel comfortable with all the ideas I proposed" for a negotiated settlement, Nimetz said after talks with a senior Greek diplomat in the northern city of Thessaloniki. "I think both sides want a solution ... and there are so many important reasons why this should be solved."

Speaking earlier after talks with senior officials in Macedonia, Nimetz said there was "a gap" between the two countries' positions. But he added: "I got a lot of encouragement to keep up this task, so we will be working."

Shortly before Nimetz' arrival in Thessaloniki, the city's Orthodox church and a nationalist party staged two separate, peaceful rallies against any Greek compromise on the name dispute. Police said some 5,000 people, some waving Serbian and Russian flags, attended each rally.

"We have nothing against the people of Skopje, but rather against their ungrateful leadership," Anthimos, bishop of Thessaloniki, told a crowd at the church rally, held in a sports arena.

Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski strongly urged Greece, a major investor in Macedonia, not to block his country's NATO accession.

"Greece is obliged not to hinder Macedonia to join NATO," Crvenkovski said during a brief visit to Bulgaria. "Hypothetically speaking, (that) would mean a grave violation" of an interim deal that established diplomatic relations between Greece and Macedonia.

The agreement ended a yearlong Greek trade embargo over the name dispute, which nearly destroyed the small country's economy. In exchange, Macedonia declared it had no claims on Greek territory and altered its flag that used an ancient Greek motif.

Nimetz has proposed five alternative names that Macedonia could consider adopting: Constitutional Republic of Macedonia, Democratic Republic of Macedonia, Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia, and Republic of Upper Macedonia.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said there were NATO members that disagreed with Athens' veto threat, but added there was general respect within the alliance for the Greek position.

"What interests us is that the name 'Macedonia' cannot be monopolized by a single country," Bakoyannis said in an interview with private Mega television Tuesday.

In Brussels, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn warned that failure to strike a deal would also "have negative implications" for Macedonia's bid to join the 25-nation bloc.

"I sincerely hope that both Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be able to settle this issue because I know Greece is also very committed" to Macedonia's membership of the EU, he said.

Macedonia is officially referred to at the U.N. and other international bodies as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the name Athens uses. But more than 100 countries, including the U.S., Russia and Canada, have recognized it as Macedonia.

The landlocked state of 2.1 million split peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991.

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