After a quarter-century-long dispute that has blocked its entry to NATO and the European Union, Macedonia seems determined to end the row with Greece over its name.
The quarrel between Skopje and Athens dates back to Macedonia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has poisoned neighbourly relations.
From the outset Greece denied its neighbour the right to use the name Macedonia, which is also the name of a northern Greek region.
Greeks have cited concerns about historical appropriation — both sides, for example, claim Alexander the Great as their own — and that the name Macedonia implies a broader territorial claim.
Athens and the European Union recognise the small landlocked country by its provisional name, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), under which it was also admitted to the United Nations.
Skopje has long insisted that this designation was only provisional, but in June, new Social Democratic Prime Minister Zoran Zaev seemed to relax the line of his nationalist predecessors.
“With a FYROM reference we can become a member of NATO,” Zaev said on a visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
As a member of both NATO and the European Union, Athens has vetoed Macedonia’s attempts to join both blocs, but a calendar of bilateral meetings is now in place to try to resolve the dispute.
In everyday conversation, Greeks usually refer to the neighbouring country as “Skopje”, the name of its capital city.
Back in 1992, a million Greeks — one tenth of the population — took to the streets in protest over the name issue in Thessaloniki, the main city in the Macedonia region.
Tensions grew in 2006, when Skopje airport was named “Alexander the Great”. The building in 2011 of a huge monument of the warrior king on a horse added fuel to the fire.
Under international pressure, the statue in central Skopje was officially named “Warrior on a horse” but that did not deceive anyone — especially as, a year later, authorities inaugurated a giant statue of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father.
The issue remains hugely sensitive on both sides.
Greece’s migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas last year faced calls to resign after referring to the country as “Macedonia” instead of “FYROM” during a television interview about the migrant crisis.
Mouzalas quickly apologised “for this error, which does not reflect my position and my convictions on the subject of FYROM”.
On Tuesday, the Greek women’s handball team was punished at the European Championship after refusing to play in Skopje against Macedonia’s team wearing national logo bearing that name.
In Zaev’s bid to end the row, he has spoken by telephone to his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras.
The Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov was in Athens in mid-June and his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias is going to Skopje later this month.
There is a “certain mobilisation,” a Greek diplomatic source told AFP, noting “some signs” of good will in Skopje.
But the source said it was now necessary to “wait for action”.
A top official in Zaev’s SDSM party, who also asked not to be named, warned that Greece “could keep the same position for two centuries. We should find a solution to deblock the process of integration with NATO and the EU”.
But, in the fragile country of about two million people, the official warned it would be necessary to reach a political “consensus” and to back up any decision with a referendum.
Many Macedonians are against a name change but some say they want a way out of the tiring row.
“We are Macedonians, we cannot name ourselves differently,” said Mirjana Jovanovska, 47, a dentist in Skopje.
She admitted, however, that “it would not be so terrible if a prefix was added to the name Macedonia”.
Suggestions to emerge in conversations include “Northern Macedonia”, “New Macedonia” or even “Vardarska” after a river that runs through the country.
The incumbent Greek government has not yet made any proposals, waiting for negotiations to resume before unveiling their game. In 2007 the government at the time proposed “a name with a geographic prefix”.
Upon an agreement, entering the 29-nation NATO is a much more likely prospect for Macedonia than the 28-country EU, which has frozen all enlargement until at least 2020.
“The question is: what is the price of joining the club?” asked Toni Deskoski, a law professor in Skopje.