AP NEWS

Selfie diplomacy: North Macedonia, Greek leaders break ice

April 2, 2019
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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras , left, embraces his North Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, during a Join news conference and after their meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Greek Prime minister has arrived in North Macedonia, the first ever official visit of a Greek leader to neighboring country after decades of strained relations between two nations burdened over the name "Macedonia".(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras , left, embraces his North Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, during a Join news conference and after their meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Greek Prime minister has arrived in North Macedonia, the first ever official visit of a Greek leader to neighboring country after decades of strained relations between two nations burdened over the name "Macedonia".(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — The prime ministers of Greece and North Macedonia broke the ice and engaged in selfie diplomacy Tuesday during the first ever official visit by a Greek leader to the neighboring country following decades of strained relations over a name dispute.

North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev held up a cellphone while standing beside Greek counterpart Alexis Tspiras, snapping the historic selfies outside the main government building in the capital, Skopje.

The former Yugoslav republic officially changed its name earlier this year from Macedonia to North Macedonia, settling a dispute over its name with Greece that lasted nearly three decades.

“We have lost a lot of time and now we must rapidly catch up,” Tsipras told reporters at a joint news conference. “We want to build a strong bond of trust and stability.

“When I used to take a plane to Europe, the pilot would avoid the airspace of what was the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Now we will no longer have this nonsense. We might fly around here just to say hello.”

Leaders and ministers from the two countries signed multiple friendship agreements to establish embassies in both capitals, ease trade barriers and for the Greek military to police North Macedonia’s airspace.

Tsipras traveled to Skopje with 10 Greek Cabinet ministers and more than 100 business representatives.

Speaking at a forum on economic cooperation between the two countries later Tuesday, Zaev said Greece was North Macedonia’s second-biggest trade partner in 2018 behind Germany. He added that since the name deal was signed, bilateral trade has increased more than 20%.

North Macedonia is due to become the next member of NATO after Greece dropped its objections.

Both Tsipras and Zaev faced strong domestic opposition to their agreement reached last summer to normalize relations, resolving the emotive issue tied in the two countries to national identity. Greek opponents of the agreement staged several large rallies in Athens and other cities to try and press the government to abandon the deal.

Greece opposed the use of the name Macedonia, arguing that it posed a threat to its own administrative region of Macedonia and well as the region’s ancient history and heritage that includes the legacy of the warrior king Alexander the Great.

Distrust among Balkan nations over borders, ethnic minorities, and national narratives dates back more than a century when countries in the region fought the Ottoman Empire and each other to establish and expand new nations. That hostility was maintained by wars that only ended in the late 1990s following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Western governments enthusiastically backed the deal, wary of rival influence in the Balkans by Russia, which views NATO’s expansion as a threat.

“It is a milestone to be leaving all these difficulties behind,” North Macedonia’s Zaev said. “We have showed Europe and the world that with bold decisions anything is possible.”

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Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed. Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris