The leaders of Greece and Macedonia will hold keenly anticipated talks this week, as hopes rise for a deal to end their 27-year dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's name and boost its bid to join the European Union and Nato.
Athens has vowed to prevent Macedonia joining either organisation until it changes a name that it shares with a region of northern Greece and removes parts of its constitution that allegedly imply a territorial claim on the area.
Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev is now scheduled to meet Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras on Thursday in Sofia, Bulgaria, on the sidelines of a summit between leaders of EU states and six Balkan nations.
A positive announcement from the premiers would fuel expectations that a deal could be done by the next EU summit in late June, and potentially allow Nato to invite Macedonia to join the alliance at its own summit in July.
After talks between Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias and Macedonia's top diplomat Nikola Dimitrov on Saturday, veteran United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz said their "very serious meeting" and "hard, intensive and positive work" had set the stage for their prime ministers to meet on Thursday.
Before the weekend talks near Athens, Mr Dimitrov said they would be of “great significance” as part of a process that had “entered the most delicate phase”.
He said that he and Mr Kotzias had a “duty to come to a solution that will meet as much as possible the needs of both countries and enable the prime ministers to meet and after that to shake hands”.
Neither foreign minister commented to the press following their talks.
EU membership talks
Greek media reported that an interim deal could see Athens lift its objections to Macedonia starting EU membership talks and being invited into Nato, and the country being given two years to change its constitution and introduce a new name for domestic and international use; “Upper”, “New” and “North Macedonia” are considered likely options.
When Mr Tsipras and Mr Zaev last met in January, it was the first that their countries had held talks at such a high level for seven years.
As part of a package of goodwill gestures, Macedonia this year removed Alexander the Great’s name from its national airport and main highway, soothing Greek anger over its neighbour’s perceived attempt to lay claim to the fabled ruler of ancient Macedon.
Relations between the two countries have dramatically improved since Mr Zaev’s Social Democrat-led government took power last May, ousting nationalists whose ties with Athens had been deeply strained during their decade-long rule.
The name question is still divisive in Greece and Macedonia, however, with nationalists on both sides holding large street protests against any compromise on the issue.