I’m off today to the country that I dare not name, lest I offend the Greeks.
Yes, I’m talking about that neighbouring state just to the north. It calls itself – and is recognised as such by many countries across the world – “the Republic of Macedonia”.
But Greece is concerned that name implies a territorial claim over its own northern region of Macedonia.
So, at the United Nations, the country is officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.
This is an absurd and clumsy compromise that, almost everyone agrees, has long outlived its usefulness.
But talks between Greece and FYROM/Macedonia, mediated by the UN, have been dragging on for years, with little sign of progress.
At this point you are probably rolling your eyes and sighing in despair, (unless you are from one of the two countries involved, in which case you may be already preparing a furious comment for this blog, informing me that I need to know more about Ancient and Balkan history before I stray into such treacherous waters), but in this part of the world the “name dispute” is important.
The two countries have been discussing new names for FYROM/Macedonia that they could both live with.
“Republic of Northern Macedonia” and “Republic of Macedonia-Vardar” have been mooted as possibilities.
But we soon run into sticking points the Greeks would like any new name to be adopted by all countries, whereas the government in Skopje has said it should only apply to bilateral relations between it and Athens.
It has argued that those countries (a comfortable majority within the UN General Assembly, by the way) that already have recognised “the Republic of Macedonia” could carry on using that name.
In one sense, Greece holds some strong cards it can veto FYROM/Macedonia’s accession to the EU and Nato.
On the other hand, the Greeks know, regardless of their conviction that they are right, that their insistence on this issue is, to put it politely, frustrating to most of the rest of the world.
George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, must somehow weigh up the competing demands of domestic and international opinion, at a time when his country is reliant on financial support from abroad.
I’ll be interviewing Nikola Gruevski, the prime minister of “the Republic of Macedonia,” in Skopje, the capital.
Amongst other things, the Greeks accuse him of appropriating their ancient history, in order to give his country a false sense of identity.
For example, he has renamed Skopje’s airport as “Alexander the Great Airport”, (you won’t be surprised to hear that no Greek airlines land there, hence my journey from Athens involves complicated connections, and takes a lot longer than a glance at a map would suggest).
Look out for the interview on Al Jazeera English in the coming days.