SOUNION, Greece May 12 (Reuters) - Foreign Ministers of Greece and Macedonia met in the presence of a UN envoy on Saturday, in an attempt to bridge their differences in a decades-old dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav Republic before an EU summit next week.
The row began in earnest in 1991, when Macedonia broke away peacefully from former Yugoslavia, declaring its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.
Greece, which has its own region called Macedonia, has asked its neighbour to change its name, as well as what it says are “irredentist” references in Skopje’s national constitution, which Greece says must be taken out.
The dispute has blocked Macedonia’s aspirations to join the European union and the NATO military alliance.
But the two countries decided last year to renew their efforts and try to reach a settlement long before the summer.
“We are in a very delicate phase ... in a way tackling one of the last remaining differences,” said Macedonia’s Nikola Dimitrov a day before meeting his Greek counterpart and UN mediator Matthew Nimetz.
“We managed in 11 months to become very close at a personal level,” Dimitrov told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of Balkan foreign ministers on Friday.
“If we are able to have this breakthrough, I think in less than 11 months, probably in 11 weeks, there will be a huge relief.”
The meeting at a resort east of Athens comes five days before an EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia, where the two countries’ prime ministers are also expected to discuss the issue.
Both sides see 2018 as a year of opportunity.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hopes to resolve the matter to gain more political leverage in Europe, and at the same time increase his popularity at home where many Greeks feel the country’s debt crisis and three massive bailouts have compromised its sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who came to power a year ago, wants to accelerate his country’s accession to NATO and the EU to boost international support for his fragile coalition.
Greece has said a compromise could include a compound name with a geographical or chronological qualifier by which the country would be known and referred to in all international institutions - the so-called “erga omnes”.
Examples could include Upper Macedonia and North Macedonia.
Pending a settlement, the ex-Yugoslav nation was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Reporting by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou Editing by Clelia Oziel