Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said a deal had been reached while his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras said much ground had been covered, but there is still a way to go yet.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gives a news conference at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, where he said that a tentative agreement had been reached with Greece on a naming issue that plagues the relations between the two countries.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gives a news conference at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, where he said that a tentative agreement had been reached with Greece on a naming issue that plagues the relations between the two countries. (Reuters)

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on Thursday he has agreed with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras on a solution to ending a long-running name row between the two neighbours.

"We were discussing many options and we agreed on one that is acceptable for both sides," Zaev told reporters after meeting Tsipras at a summit of Balkan and European Union leaders in Sofia, without elaborating further.

But Tsipras was more cautious, saying the two were "not yet in a position" to announce a deal to end the 25-year row, while admitting they had gone a good way to resolving it. 

"I believe we have covered a major part of the distance, but there is still distance to cover," he told a press conference. 

The name dispute between the two countries dates back to 1991, when Skopje declared independence from the former Yugoslavia, which collapsed in a series of bloody wars.

Athens objects to Macedonia's name because it has its own northern province called Macedonia, and fears it may imply territorial ambitions.

In 1993, it was only after adopting a provisional name – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – that the country was finally admitted into the United Nations.

Most other nations, including Russia, the United States and even China, have recognised the Balkan nation under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. 

But the dispute has hampered its ambitions to join the EU and the NATO military alliance.

The name of the language

Zaev said there would be consultations with institutions in both countries over implementation of the agreed option.

"If [implementation] is possible, we will probably have a solution for the name," he said.

The prime minister said it was important to "confirm all the successes ... achieved so far" during the negotiations.

UN-mediated talks to settle the row resumed after Zaev's Social Democrats won the elections last year, ousting the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski after more than 10 years in power.

In an interview with AFP in April, Zaev said he was optimistic about finding a way to resolve the bitter dispute.

He has previously said an agreement could be reached by summer.

Macedonia government sources on Tuesday confirmed that the main remaining difficulty was over the official name of the landlocked Balkan country's language.

Athens wants any changes to be enshrined in a revised Macedonian constitution, which Zaev's government currently lacks the parliamentary majority to enforce.

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos on Tuesday left open the possibility of an international treaty setting out a binding roadmap for future constitutional revision.

'Upper Macedonia'?

When the two leaders last met in Davos, Switzerland in January, Zaev made a conciliatory gesture by pledging to rename Alexander the Great airport in Skopje – a name which has long riled the Greeks.

And he said the north-south Alexander the Great motorway linking Macedonia with Greece would now be referred to as "Friendship Highway".

There are a number of possible new names for the country, with Gorna Makedonija or Upper Macedonia the most frequently mentioned.

In April, the European Commission recommended opening EU accession talks with Skopje, an EU candidate since 2005, in a development Zaev described as "encouraging".

"This is a message of open doors. That is very important for Macedonia," he told AFP at the time, saying more than 75 percent of Macedonians were in favour of the country's integration into the EU and NATO.