The man who has focused on one word for 23 years

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the item’s 26 years since Yugoslavia broke into pieces along with also also the republic of Macedonia came into being. In all that will time, the brand new country has lacked an official, internationally agreed name, because of Greece’s objections to the name “Macedonia”. along with also also for nearly all of that will time, explains Alex Marshall, one man has been working to solve the problem.

Matthew Nimetz wants to make something clear – he has not spent every waking moment of the past 23 years thinking about one word: “Macedonia”.

“I have probably thought about the item more than anyone else – including inside country,” says the 78-year-old US diplomat. “however I have to disappoint anyone that will thinks the item’s my full-time job.”

Since 1994, Nimetz has been trying to negotiate an end to arguably the entire world’s strangest international dispute, in which Greece is actually objecting to Macedonia’s name along with also also refusing to let the item join either Nato or the EU until the item’s changed.

Greece says the name “Macedonia” suggests that will the country has territorial ambitions over Greece’s own Macedonia – a province inside north of the country – along with also also is actually a blatant attempt to lay claim to Greece’s national heritage.

the item should be called something like “Skopje” instead, Greece argues – Skopje being Macedonia’s capital city.

Macedonia, by contrast, argues that will you can trace its people back to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, once ruled by Alexander the Great – along with also also that will the name “Macedonia” is actually therefore the obvious choice.

One upshot is actually that will travellers entering northern Greece through the Republic of Macedonia, along with also also those crossing the border inside opposite direction, are both greeted by roadside signs welcoming them to Macedonia.

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Welcome to Macedonia: The Greek type of the sign

When Nimetz began his work on the dispute he was serving as US President Bill Clinton’s special envoy, however since the end of 1999 he’s been the personal envoy of the UN secretary-general – his task to nudge the two sides slowly towards a resolution, for a token salary of $1 per year.

Macedonia got into the UN by agreeing to be called The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) for all official purposes, however This particular was not intended to be a permanent solution to the problem, along with also also created a brand new set of difficulties.

“the item makes for very awkward sentence construction,” Nimetz says, with some understatement.

Ban Ki-moon, the former UN secretary-general, once got muddled along with also also called the country the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Yugoslavia” by accident. “He said to me, ‘You’ve got to solve This particular problem. the item’s driving me crazy,'” Nimetz says.

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Ban Ki-moon in Macedonia in 2012, with then prime minister George Ivanov

Despite the glacial pace of negotiations, he has never seriously thought of quitting.

“Some people think the item’s me just sitting there thinking of adjectives to put in front of the name Macedonia – like brand new Macedonia, Upper Macedonia – however This particular issue has historical importance… importance in terms of nation-building,” he says.

“along with also also the item is actually never boring, the cast of characters dealing with the item alterations all the time. Think of a theatre director who does King Lear or Hamlet, however with different staging along with also also actors. Do they get bored?”

When Nimetz first became Clinton’s envoy, back inside 1990s, the item looked as though the dispute could spiral out of control.

Greece had been objecting to Macedonia’s name since 1991, when Macedonia declared independence through Yugoslavia. The following year, a million Greeks – a 10th of the population – took to the streets of Thessaloniki to protest.

Those protests helped bring down the country’s prime minister, along with also also his replacement, Andreas Papandreou, barred Macedonia’s access to Greek ports. Macedonia was a “real along with also also present danger to Greece”, he claimed.

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A statue of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father, goes up in Skopje in 2012

Nimetz includes a surprising amount of understanding for the Greek fear that will Macedonians could one day lay claim to Greek territory.

“I have to explain to people This particular Greek concern about irredentism is actually not just created out of thin air,” he says.

“Within the last three generations, these sorts of threats were real to the country. This particular feeling that will ‘We’re always being encircled.’ inside Balkans, each country includes a history of being dismembered, or having fought off their neighbours at some point.”

He once explained the dispute to US senators by asking how they would likely feel if Mexico changed its name to The Republic of Mexico along with also also Texas, then started out publishing historic maps implying ownership of the whole south-west US.

However, he has equal understanding for the Macedonians.

“When the Greeks say to them, ‘Oh, you only came here inside 9th, 10th Century – you’re not genuinely through This particular region. You should call yourselves, at the most, brand new Macedonia,’ well, to the people of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, that will’s a problem. They don’t consider themselves ‘brand new’. They consider themselves indigenous as anyone.”

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Thousands of migrants crossed through Greece into Macedonia in 2016 at a border crossing near Idomeni, north of Thessaloniki

Despite This particular, Nimetz did at first think there would likely be a quick end to the dispute. So did leading Macedonian politicians.

“I talked about the item with them along with also also they said, ‘Time is actually in our favour. Let’s just talk a few years, let things calm down, change some people in government.’ however the item didn’t quite work that will way,” he says.

A long list of names has been suggested: everything through brand new Macedonia along with also also Nova Makedonija, to Slavo-Macedonia along with also also the Republic of Skopje. At one point, both the Upper Republic of Macedonia along with also also the Republic of Upper Macedonia were on the table.

however none has yet been accepted.

the item may seem as though there are no more adjectives left to try – or any point trying them – however Nimetz insists disputes get solved when the timing is actually right.

Just look at Northern Ireland or the reunification of Germany, he says. Change may occur because events make people look at an issue in a brand new light, or brand new leaders may come in with the political authority take tough decisions. Or people may just get exhausted by never-ending debate.

He is actually optimistic that will the timing may be right because of This particular dispute soon. This particular is actually partly due to brand new leadership in Macedonia – the Social Democrat Zoran Zaev became prime minister This particular year, breaking a long political deadlock inside country. however also because Macedonia needs to find a solution so the item can get closer to its goals of joining Nato along with also also the EU.

“Doing that will would likely give them reassurance, legitimacy, economic opportunities… along with also also a sense of permanence,” Nimetz says. the item also might ease tensions inside country between ethnic Macedonians along with also also Albanians, who make up a quarter of the population. In 2001, such tensions brought the country to the brink of civil war.

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Macedonian security forces attack Albanian rebels in Gajre, north of Skopje, in March 2001

however Nimetz admits convincing voters in both countries will be difficult. Macedonian leaders have promised any agreement will go to a referendum.

He thinks part of the way out is actually to encourage people not to see This particular as a question of national identity.

“One ordinary citizen in Skopje once said to me: ‘When I get up inside morning along with also also I’m shaving, I look inside mirror along with also also say, I’m a Macedonian. Well, tomorrow, when I’m shaving, do you expect me to say, I’m a brand new Macedonian or I’m an Upper Macedonian?’

“I told him his concern is actually understandable, however the item’s the wrong way to look at This particular. We are only talking about the formulation of the name of This particular state for diplomatic purposes. the item won’t impact the average person.

“We’re not negotiating identity. If we were, I’d be out of here.”

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He does recognise that will identity is actually important, though – despite being “a great believer in globalism”.

“I believe there’s a tribal aspect to us as a species,” he says, “along with also also the item’s very hard to feel comfortable in a global world, even for people like me.”

In all his time working on the dispute, there has been only one moment when Nimetz united both sides. the item was at an unlikely time too, when Macedonia was putting up numerous statues of Alexander the Great in its cities, along with also also had named its main airport after him, causing outrage in Greece.

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Skopje’s airport is actually named after Alexander the Great, while Thessaloniki’s (above) is actually called “Macedonia”

“When that will was happening, I said to a reporter through Skopje, ‘I can’t understand all This particular, because Alexander the Great was a great military leader, however he destroyed so much along with also also killed so many people.’ Well, I got hell for that will – through all sides. I almost resigned.”

Nimetz has just finished his latest round of meetings on the issue, meeting politicians in Skopje, along with also also Greece’s foreign minister.

A solution can be achieved, he insists, however for the immediate future he is actually busy simply planning a holiday “up above the Arctic Circle to a lodge where the caribou migrate”.

A not bad chance to get away through questions about national identity along with also also self-determination, surely?

“Well, actually,” he says, “Maybe not, when you think about the First Nations of Canada…”

He then starts enthusiastically explaining Canada’s debate about indigenous self-government, along with also also the item quickly becomes clear that will his love of such questions is actually the real reason he has been able to work on a dispute about just one word for the past 23 years.

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