Greece calm over EU Macedonia move

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The Independent Online
GREECE reacted with unexpected restraint yesterday to the move by six of its European Union partners, including Britain and Germany, to open formal diplomatic relations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The breach of EU solidarity was widely perceived as a slap in the face for Athens as it prepares to take up the six-month presidency of the Union on 1 January. But there were signs yesterday that instead of exacerbating the most volatile dispute in the Balkans, the move to establish formal diplomatic relations may improve security for Skopje, ending months of uncertainty there.

Despite Greece's foreign policy setback, the Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou took what diplomats said was a constructive approach to the problem, one that could result in relations eventually being normalised.

Diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands formally upgraded their relations at a ceremony in Skopje attended by President Kiro Gligorev. The move was an act of preventive diplomacy for Macedonia, which is surrounded by hostile neighbours - some with territorial ambitions - and primed for internecine war because of its large Albanian minority.

Macedonia, which is in economic free-fall, is thought by many to be the most likely site for a full-scale Balkan war, which could easily draw in the region's old enemies, Turkey and Greece, along with Serbia and Bulgaria.

Moderate statements from Mr Papandreou over the past few days calling for Mr Gligorov 'to end his intransigence with deeds' were seen as an invitation to Skopje to open a dialogue. There are also signs that Athens is prepared to stop protesting about the use of the name Macedonia.

Mr Gligorov responded yesterday with a statement to the effect that Macedonia respected 'the permanence of the border with the Republic of Greece' and saying that it was prepared to sign an agreement recognising that the borders were permanent. Athens has more demands, however. In particular it wants Skopje to declare that it is prepared to stop using the Star of Vergina (an artefact found near Thessaloniki) in its national flag and to renounce two articles in its constitution that imply ambitions on Greek territory.

After the decision was announced in Athens yesterday, there were no protest rallies or inflammatory statements from government officials, a sharp contrast to the antics of the more overtly nationalist New Democracy government earlier in the year.

Instead, Greece issued a pro forma diplomatic protest to its EU partners while the government spokesman, Evangelos Venizelos, remarked that the decision was 'expected' and was 'a bad blow to European solidarity'.

Some 1,000 troops are stationed in Macedonia as United Nations observers, hoping to prevent the war in the former Yugoslavia from spreading south.