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Macedonia says “huge mountains” remain in name dispute with Greece (Updated)

Macedonia and Greece have ‘mountains to climb’ in resolving a dispute over Macedonia’s name that has dragged on for almost 25 years and frozen the country’s integration with NATO and the European Union, Macedonia’s foreign minister said on Thursday.

Athens has disputed the name of its northern neighbour since Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, saying it implies territorial claims to a Greek province of the same name.

Signs of a warming in relations between Athens and Skopje have fuelled speculation of progress towards a deal that could bring an end to Greece’s veto on Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and start membership negotiations with the EU.

But Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski faces an early election in April next year after a year of political crisis, and has so far built his nine-year rule on nationalism and a rejection of Greek demands that Macedonia change its name.

“There are huge mountains between us,” Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said after talks with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias, in Athens.

Poposki stressed Skopje’s desire for “profoundly good relations with Greece”. But on the name issue, “there are substantive differences in the positions of the two countries.”

“I believe no one benefits from creating false expectations,” he said through an interpreter.

Kotzias said the two sides were seeking “an honourable compromise that will fight irredentism and extreme nationalism on both sides.”

Greece, a member of both NATO and the EU, is withholding support for Macedonia’s further integration until it agrees to change its name. NATO’s decision this month to invite another former Yugoslav republic, Montenegro, to join the Western military alliance further underscored how far Macedonia has fallen behind its regional peers.

Gruevski, however, has spent much of his tenure burnishing Macedonians’ sense of national identity and their claim to the warrior-king Alexander the Great. Greeks accuse the Macedonians of stealing their history.

The West is increasingly worried about a deterioration in democracy in Macedonia under Gruevski in the absence of an EU integration process that has helped spur reform in the rest of the former Yugoslavia.

Macedonia narrowly avoided full-blown civil war in 2001 when ethnic Albanian guerrillas fought government security forces for greater rights and representation for the large Albanian minority.

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