By Matt Robinson
TRIESTE, Italy, July 13 (Reuters) – Macedonia and Bulgaria have agreed the text of a friendship treaty aimed at resolving years of dispute and tension, Macedonia´s foreign minister said, part of a drive by Skopje’s new government to breathe life into its Western integration.
Macedonia´s fraught ties with its bigger eastern neighbour, with which it shares close historic, cultural and linguistic ties, have hampered Skopje´s stalled efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Bulgaria belongs to both organisations.
However, the biggest obstacle on Skopje’s European path remains its dispute with southern neighbour Greece over the name `Macedonia´, which Athens says implies a territorial claim to its own northern province of the same name.
“We have reached a compromise on the text (with Bulgaria),” Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday at the end of a Balkan summit in northern Italy.
“Signing the treaty of friendship with Bulgaria will add to our credibility, that we are serious and that we would like to make friends in our region.”
Bulgaria’s foreign ministry said the “basis” for compromise with Macedonia had been reached. Officials have also said previously they hope the treaty can be signed on Aug. 2.
The two Balkan neighbours both hope the treaty will help bury years of dispute over history, identity, language and ethnic minorities that have frequently soured relations.
Macedonia, a small ex-Yugoslav republic of about two million people, declared independence in 1991 and avoided the violence that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, but was later rocked by an ethnic Albanian insurgency that almost tore the country apart in 2001. Macedonia has a large ethnic Albanian minority.
APPEAL TO GREECE
Dimitrov visited Athens in mid-June shortly after taking office after the almost decade-long rule of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Grueveski had become increasingly nationalistic and antagonistic towards Greece after Athens blocked an invitation from NATO for Macedonia to join in 2008.
Dimitrov told Reuters he had proposed to Athens that it allow Macedonia to join NATO under its United Nations-designated name, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and for negotiations on a long-term deal to continue.
Greece has previously rejected such a solution, but Western diplomats say the change of government in Macedonia has given new impetus to NATO and EU efforts to resolve the issue and move the country along the path of integration.
“My message in Athens was, we have this new beginning in Macedonia, please rethink what kind of a neighbour you would like to have to your north,” Dimitrov said.
“If you would like to have a European democracy governed by the rule of law, now is the time to help us and perhaps letting us into NATO under the UN provisional designation… could be an investment into a climate where tackling the biggest problems will be possible.”
Dimitrov was coy about Greece’s response, but cautioned against expecting any imminent breakthrough.
“I don’t think we can do anything overnight,” he said. “It’s going to be a brick-by-brick process.”
Asked if Macedonia would one day be open to changing its name, Dimitrov said: “It´s a very complex issue that involves emotions and identity.
“For us, to tackle the issue, we need to have a process that will create a national position on the issue. There will definitely be a referendum.” (Writing by Matt Robinson)