European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has urged Macedonia to resolve a long-standing naming dispute with neighbouring Greece so the country can open membership talks with the European Union.
Mr Juncker arrived in Macedonia to kick off a Western Balkans tour that will also include stops in Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro, all countries aspiring to EU membership.
He met Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in the capital, Skopje.
Mr Juncker praised Macedonia for the “pace of reforms” needed to join the EU and for concluding a friendship treaty with neighbouring Bulgaria.
Greece argues that Macedonia’s use of it when it gained independence in 1991 implies territorial claims to its Macedonia province.
Once the 25-year dispute is resolved, Macedonia, which has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, would be invited to accession talks “within months,” Mr Juncker said.
“Do your job with Greece,” he said. “I do not intend to lecture those involved.”
As a goodwill gesture to Greece, Macedonia is changing the name of its main airport, Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, to Skopje International Airport, and the airport operator has started removing the lettering.
Mr Juncker said he was “enchanted (to find) that something has changed at the airport”.
Mr Zaev reaffirmed that he was willing to accept a “geographical qualifier” in Macedonia’s name to reach a compromise, but insisted the new name must “respect the dignity” of people in both countries.
To satisfy Greece, the United Nations and other international institutions officially recognise Macedonia as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Discussions are under way to come up with an alternative.
Mr Juncker was due to meet Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov later Sunday before flying to Albania.