EMOTIONS: Fans in Skopje celebrate the September 3 victory of
Macedonia's national basketball team over Greece at the Eurobasket 2011
championship. But Skopje's name dispute with Athens remains at stalemate, in what the European Commission has made clear is an obstacle to Macedonia's EU hopes.
Macedonia has been making much of the reforms that it has initiated ahead of the European Commission report on the country expected in October, but Skopje’s dispute with Athens about the use of the name "Macedonia" is continuing to block its European Union hopes.
In recent days, frank messages have been delivered to Skopje about the willingness of the bloc and significant players such as Bulgaria to assist in Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, provided that Macedonia in turn demonstrates good neighbourliness.
European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle, who visited Skopje on September 5, said in a speech: "We are ready to start negotiations with you. However, the name issue needs to be resolved before accession negotiations can begin.
"Member states in the (European) Council have made it clear that this problem will not be imported into the European Union," Füle said.
Speaking at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, he called on Macedonia to honour the "spirit of Ohrid" in pressing ahead with reforms.
Skopje had achieved a lot and the European Commission in 2009 had recommended the start of accession negotiations.
"But there is no room for complacency. Much more needs to be done. Difficult decisions need to be taken to consolidate the quality of state institutions and of democracy."
Füle said that reform of public administration must be based on merit, the independence of the judiciary needs to be strengthened in practice, the real fight against corruption must begin and freedom of expression and of the media must be respected and cherished.
According to a report by Skopje daily Vecer, Füle expressed optimism that the name dispute could be settled by the end of 2011. He attributed this optimism to the "mutual trust" between Greek prime minister George Papandreou and Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who had pledged to work to find a mutually acceptable solution.
In Skopje, there is official optimism about the European Commission report.
"I think both we and the European Commission will have reason to feel satisfied with what's been accomplished," the Vice Prime Minister in charge of EU affairs, Teuta Arifi, said on September 2, as quoted by Balkan Insight.
On taking up her post in July, Arifi set a September 5 deadline for all ministries to complete the reforms that Brussels had requested for this year.
Sofia and Skopje
Nikola Poposki, who became Macedonia’s foreign minister in July, was in the Bulgarian capital city on September 1 for talks with his Bulgarian counterpart, Nikolai Mladenov.
Bilateral relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia have had their prickly moments, especially on issues such as perspectives on history, Skopje’s claims of a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and individual incidents in the past that have seen emotional rhetoric by the respective countries’ politicians.
Mladenov, who has made assistance for the EU prospects of Western Balkans countries a foreign policy priority since taking office as Foreign Minister in early 2010, signed with Poposki an agreement intended to see Sofia help Skopje on issues of Euro-Atlantic integration.
Bulgaria regularly offers EU aspirants in the region the possibility of learning from Bulgaria’s experiences and errors in its road to EU accession in 2007.
Mladenov, according to a Foreign Ministry statement, spoke of the essential need for trust in building a genuine strategic partnership between the two countries.
He reiterated that Bulgaria has a moral obligation to help all its neighbours to meet the criteria for EU membership through the development of good neighbourly relations and regional co-operation.
Mladenov expressed hope that Skopje would make an effort to overcome the negative rhetoric and prejudices directed against Bulgaria. He confirmed Bulgaria's willingness to celebrate jointly historical events and personalities that are shared, so as to help better develop bilateral relations.
Seasoned observers noted, however, that unless Macedonia can achieve confidence-building with its neighbours and move to produce the concrete achievement of a name dispute resolution, it will risk remaining becalmed while other Western Balkans countries progress towards EU membership.
As to the name dispute, no new proposal is to be tabled, according to Macedonian daily Dnevnik, quoting Matthew Nimetz, the UN-appointed mediator.
Dnevnik said that Nimetz had said he would make no new proposal unless it was certain to produce a result.
"It is not easy to make a new proposal until there are guarantees from both countries that there is serious interest and will for such a move on my behalf, i.e. that there is interest in accepting the new proposal as grounds for new talks," Nimetz was quoted as saying.