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Seeking better ties, Greece and Macedonia ask: What's in a name?

Macedonia's foreign minister has visited Athens for talks with his Greek counterpart. It's the first such trip in 15 years, with both countries locked in a bitter naming dispute.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Poposki, said in Athens on Thursday that his country and Greece should put aside a bitter dispute over nomenclature - at least for the time being - and focus on their mutual interests.

Greece claims the name Macedonia - as well as the vast historical legacy associated with the homeland of Alexander the Great (known as "Alexander III of Macedon" before attaining his more common handle) - for its northern mainland province. Athens was outraged when - upon splitting from Belgrade in 1991 - Yugoslavia's small southernmost province took the name Macedonia for itself.

A recent thaw in relations has led to speculation that a deal could be reached, and Poposki on Thursday stressed his government's desire for "profoundly good relations with Greece."

However, he added that - on the name issue - "there are huge mountains between us."

Griechenland Außenminister Kotzias Poposki FYROM

Poposki (left) and Kotzias acknowleged the depth of division over the name issue

"I believe no one benefits from creating false expectations," said Poposki.

More than just a name?

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, meanwhile, said he was eager to intensify discussion to settle the naming dispute. He said the two sides were seeking an "honorable compromise that will fight irredentism and extreme nationalism on both sides."

Irredentism refers to political or popular movements to reclaim a lost homeland, with many Greeks believing that the use of the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim.

Greece says if the name Macedonia should be used at all for its neighbor, it should be with a geographical qualifier such as "Northern Macedonia." The country was admitted to the UN in 1993 under the title Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which remains its official name today.

The disagreement worsened when, in 2006, Macedonia said the airport of it capital, Skopje, would be renamed Alexander the Great Airport.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been keen to kindle a sense of national identity based around the narrative that his country is the true home of Alexander. Numerous statues of the leader, who conquered most of the known world during his reign from 336 to 323 BC, have been erected in the country.

Flagging up other issues

Greeks accuse their northern neighbor of stealing the warrior king's legacy. As member of both NATO and the EU, Greece is withholding support for Macedonia's further integration into both organizations until it agrees to change its name.

In 1995, Greece was successful in having Macedonia alter its flag, which featured the Vergina Sun - an ancient Macedonian symbol.

In an earlier interview with Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini, Poposki sought to shift the focus away from the name to the refugee crisis, saying he would seek a stronger effort from Greece when it came to the registration and filtering of migrants.

The Macedonian army erected a 3-kilometer fence along the border crossing with Greece, near the Skopje-Athens highway, in November. It said the move was necessary to channel migrants to controlled entry points, and has echoed EU calls for Greece to better handle the registration of migrants.

rc/msh (dpa, Reuters)

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