SKOPJE, Macedonia — European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Macedonian officials Sunday to resolve a long-standing naming dispute with neighboring Greece so the country can open membership talks with the European Union.
Juncker, on a Western Balkans tour that also includes stops in Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro, all countries aspiring to EU membership, praised Albania for its justice system reforms and urged it to resolve its border disputes with neighboring countries.
Kicking off his tour in Macedonia, Juncker met in the capital, Skopje, with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and President Gjorge Ivanov.
Juncker praised Macedonia for the "pace of reforms" needed to join the EU and for concluding a friendship treaty with neighboring Bulgaria. He also noted the recent progress Greece and Macedonia have made to settle their differences over the Macedonia name.
Greece argues that Macedonia's use of it when it gained independence in 1991 implies territorial claims to its Macedonia province.
Once the 25-year dispute is resolved, Macedonia, which has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, would be invited to accession talks "within months," Juncker said.
"Do your job with Greece," he said. "I do not intend to lecture those involved."
As a goodwill gesture to Greece, Macedonia is changing the name of its main airport, Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, to Skopje International Airport and the airport operator has started removing the lettering.
Juncker said he was "enchanted (to find) that something has changed at the airport."
To satisfy Greece, the United Nations and other international institutions officially recognize Macedonia as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Discussions are underway to come up with an alternative.
Prime Minister Zaev reaffirmed that he is willing to accept a "geographical qualifier" in Macedonia's name to reach a compromise, but insisted the new name must "respect the dignity" of people in both countries.
The most likely solution will be to add a modifier such as "new", "upper" or "north" to the republic's name. Greece is also pushing for changes in the Macedonian Constitution to eliminate what Athens considers "irredentist" claims; Macedonia insists that constitutional amendments in 1995 already addressed the Greek objections.
A statement from President Ivanov's office after the meeting welcomed the European Union's new expansion strategy for the Western Balkans and urged the EU to have a "fair and objective" approach to accession talks with Macedonia.
Juncker next headed to Albania's capital, Tirana, where he met with Prime Minister Edi Rama.
He said Albania also has made "impressive progress" toward government reform, in areas such as the judicial system, combatting criminality and making the administration more responsive to citizens.
But the country's leaders also must address any outstanding border disputes with neighbors, preferably before the European Commission completes an assessment of the headway Western Balkan countries have made toward EU membership, Juncker said. The release is scheduled for April.
Rama expressed optimism that Albania and Greece will resolve the issue of the Chams, Albanians living in the northwest Greece province of Epirus who were expelled after World War II for allegedly collaborating with German and Italian occupying forces and whose property was confiscated.
"We will make a success of the (negotiating) process," Rama said.
"Albania is profoundly European," Juncker affirmed. "We have been separated by the vicissitudes of history for too long."
Juncker denied that Serbia and Montenegro have been promised entry into the EU ahead of Albania. He said a date for those countries to become members hasn't been set.
"Don't keep writing that Albania is not treated well by the European Union," Juncker told a journalist who had asked about the timeline.