Kathimerini English

Matthew Nimetz regrets lost ‘opportunit­ies for agreement’

United Nations mediator in name dispute with FYROM speaks to Kathimerin­i

- BY TOM ELLIS

During the two decades since the emergence of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), there were moments when either Athens or Skopje had the necessary flexibilit­y to accept a compromise solution but never at the same time, United Nations Special Representa­tive Matthew Nimetz told Kathimerin­i in an interview a few days before the 20th anniversar­y of the neighborin­g country’s independen­ce on September 8.

According to sources in Greece and FYROM, the only moment when both sides seemed ready to agree was in February 2001, when Costas Simitis and Ljubco Georgievsk­i seemed ready to accept the name “Gorna Makedonija,” but ethnic tensions inside FYROM did not allow the process to move ahead. As for Greece, once more in our history, the maximalist approaches did not allow the acceptance of realistic compromise­s which were in the past even described as something close to “national treason” but today would have been seen as a national success, the most characteri­stic case being the name “Slavomaced­onia,” which Constantin­e Mitsotakis suggested in the early 90s.

Nimetz feels sad about the inability to achieve an agreement during these many years of negotiatio­ns of which he has been a part since 1994, but he is continuing in his efforts because the two sides want the UN process to exist. He makes it clear that he does not intend to put forward a new proposal if he has no indication from both sides that it will be accepted as a basis for negotiatio­ns.

As Athens insists on a geographic qualifier, it is thought that his last official proposal, “North Macedonia,” as well as “Upper Macedonia” or “Vardar Macedonia,” which have also been discussed, could be accepted.

The UN mediator says that the direct talks between George Papandreou and Nikola Gruevski open new possibilit­ies, although he notes that good personal relations are one thing and substantiv­e agreement another. He is not sure if getting an interim agreement before a comprehens­ive solution was the right choice, noting the pluses and minuses of the decision, and leaves the final judgment to the historians of the future. Finally, he describes as an important move the decision of the government of Costas Karamanlis in 2007 to accept a composite name that includes the term “Macedonia,” and he criticizes, with the discretion that stems from his institutio­nal role, the decision to put a huge statue of Alexander the Great in the center of Skopje.

There were times during these 20 years when I sensed that one side seemed closer to a more flexible approach, but the other was not, and vice versa.

I continue to see Adamantios Vassilakis and Zoran Jolevski very regularly and exchange ideas with them, as well as other participan­ts in the process.

As things stand now I will not present a new proposal lightly, unless I have an indication from both sides that there is serious interest in having one presented, and I conclude it has a serious chances of being accepted by both sides as a basis of negotiatio­n. At this stage it’s better not to present a new proposal than to have one more effort be rejected outright by one or both of the sides. That said, there are a number of ideas still on the table worthy of continued dialogue through the UN process or bilaterall­y and I stand ready to be helpful.

Despite not having a final solution after all these years, I believe it can be done, and I hope that through continued dialogue and constructi­ve leadership we will find a mutually acceptable solution.

In 2007 the Greek government made an important gesture officially accepting a composite name that includes the term “Macedonia.” It wasn’t easy and should be appreciate­d as a contributi­on to the process of resolving this issue.

The direct talks between Papandreou and Gruevski are a good thing. The fact that there is a dialogue on that level opens possibilit­ies and makes a breakthrou­gh easier to imagine, but of course good personal relations are one thing and substantiv­e agreement another.

Moves by any side that inflame tensions are not helpful. They make people wonder what the re- al purposes of such actions are and therefore make it more difficult to focus constructi­vely on arriving at a fair acceptable solution. I do think that the issue of respect for patrimony and historical issues will be more easily dealt with once a solution to the “name” is found.

The 2004 US recognitio­n of FYROM as “Macedonia” created an uproar in Greece. I did not know anything of it in advance and was surprised myself. I was never told the reason, but my guess – and it’s only a guess – was that the Bush administra­tion felt that Skopje had been closer to its policies in Iraq and Afghanista­n and elsewhere and wanted to reward them, while Greece was not. My sense was also that the Bush administra­tion also felt that they are a small country, having serious internal issues and that US recognitio­n of the constituti­onal name would help resolve internal issues.

It seemed to me that the Bush administra­tion was influenced by the view that the country simply had the right to call themselves the way they want. At least this is what I believe was the motivation, but I was never told, and as a UN official at this stage of my career, was not and am not privy to the thinking of the US government on this issue.

The historians will decide if the interim agreement was the right course to follow. On the one hand it was good, because it brought the two countries and peoples closer and improved their relations, but the problem has not ended, and one could say we missed an opportunit­y to solve everything at once. On the other hand, if we had not achieved the interim accord, relations might well have been in a worse situation today.

Holbrooke was a strong personalit­y, I had worked with him at the State Department in the 1970s. He used the tense situation in the rest of the Balkans in 1995 to personally push the two leaders, Andreas Papandreou and Kiro Gligorov, and helped Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and me to get them to accept the interim agreement which Vance and I had negotiated.

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