The latest “hiccup” affecting a provisional agreement between Athens and Skopje to resolve the long-standing “fYRoM name issue” revolved around a statement over the weekend by the neighboring country’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, who referred to the “possibility” of the “Macedonian” language being taught in Greece.
The quip generated a firestorm of criticism by the political opposition in Greece, the majority of whom already oppose the landmark Prespa Agreement, signed between the two governments last June. Speaking before the fYRoM parliament in Skopje on Saturday, Zaev also referred to ethnic “Macedonians” in Greece and Bulgaria, adding that “especially for those in the Aegean (portion of Macedonia, i.e. the Greek province of Macedonia), practically nothing has been done over the past 27 years since the independence of ‘Macedonia’,” he said, referring to the constitutional name of his country.
However, in an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, which was carried by the IBNA news agency, Zaev reportedly shied away from his earlier comments and reiterated his government’s volition to press forth with the ratification and to adhere to the text agreement.
“… As a country that aspires to join the EU, we understand that countries take care of their own citizens and countries in the Balkans do not interfere in neighboring countries on any given issue…We want to underline article 4(3) of the Prespa agreement that we commit not to interfere in the internal affairs of Greece, including for the protection of rights of any persons that are not our citizens…” he was quoted as saying, while adding:
“In that sense, it is understood that language policies in both countries are not determined by the Prespa agreement…We understand and respect that the question of what languages are taught in Greece is an issue of internal affairs and domestic policy."
In its initial reaction, main opposition called the Zaev statement “provocative”, and also charged that the agreement encourages, rather than eradicates irredentism on the part of the neighboring country. ND officials also repeated that the party will not ratify the pact in this parliament or the plenum that arises from the next election.
In a more-or-less “damage control” mode, fYRoM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov met with Greek Alternate FM Giorgos Katrougalos in Brussels on Tuesday, with both men later referring to an understanding to avoid “problematic statements that create doubts over the true meaning of the Prespa agreement,” as the wordy clarification was described.
The two top diplomats met on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers’ summit in the Belgian capital, where both sides stressed their insistence on adhering to the spirit and the letter of the agreement.
In a related development, a top US official on Tuesday told Reuters that Washington expects fYRoM to join NATO in 2020, following the agreement's implementation by both Athens and Skopje.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Palmer first referred to the country as “Macedonia”, the name by which Washington recognized the one-time Yugoslav constituent state in November 2004, days after George W. Bush was re-elected to the US presidency.
He added that its NATO accession will be achieved despite Russian efforts to undermine its Euro-Atlantic prospects, Reuters reported.
“I don’t think there is any reason not to believe that North Macedonia could become the 30th member of NATO as early as 18 months from now,” he told Reuters from Sarajevo, referring to the name envisioned in the Prespa agreement.
Finally, from Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg again reiterated that ratifying the bilateral agreement is a condition for fYRoM’s accession to the Alliance, something he has repeatedly stated in the past.