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article imageGreeks see trade threat in name-change deal with North Macedonia

By Vassilis KYRIAKOULIS (AFP)     Feb 28, 2019 in World

In northern Greece, shop windows show off packets of juicy green peppers, bottles of local red wine and the classic aniseed-flavoured aperitif ouzo, all of them made in Greece but also labelled Macedonian -- "Makedoniko" in Greek.

There are around 4,000 products in Greece using the Macedonian label, mainly in the north of the country, in the Greek prefecture of Macedonia.

To Greeks, it is more than a question of simple geography. The name evokes Alexander the Great, who was born in Greek Macedonia, and wars fought a century ago against the Turks and Bulgarians to reclaim the region lost in the collapse of the Byzantine Empire.

And for the past 27 years, Greece tried to prevent its northern neighbour, also called Macedonia, from using the name at international level.

In a historic deal which came into force in mid-February, Athens and Skopje agreed to change the name of the former Yugoslav republic to North Macedonia.

The move was hailed by the European Union and NATO, but Greek traders fear it could open a new can of worms.

Under the deal, Athens has dropped its objections to use of the term "Macedonian". This in turn has led to uncertainty for many Greek businesses which are anxious to protect the name they've been trading under until now.

"This bottle is exported to 33 countries," said Yorgos Fountoulis, president of the association of wine producers in northern Greece, holding up a bottle of wine labelled "Makedoniko".

"In China or in Brazil, would they know which region this comes from?"

- 'There is confusion' -

Businesses in the northern Greek region of Macedonia are concerned that companies in the newly named North Macedonia will seek to capitalise on the name change with copycat products.

"There is confusion abroad even today about Macedonian products," said Simeon Diamantidis, treasurer of the Greek Exporters Association (SEVE).

The name change is likely to play an important role in Greek elections scheduled for October
The name change is likely to play an important role in Greek elections scheduled for October
Robert ATANASOVSKI, AFP/File

"Many believe the Macedonian products Greece exports are Macedonian products from the neighbouring country."

Since 1991, when Macedonia declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia, Athens has objected to its name, blocking its NATO and EU integration and briefly imposing a trade embargo in 1994.

At the United Nations, the Balkan country had been known until now as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

But more than 140 countries including the United States had recognised it as the Republic of Macedonia, ignoring Greece's objections.

There are currently 19 Greek Macedonian company names and brands covered by EU protected designation of origin rules.

Goods coming into the bloc are required to have "rules of origin" codes but do not need "details on the labelling of the product", an EU spokesperson said.

Trade experts say products coming into the EU were previously labelled "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and "Republic of Macedonia" -- the latter despite Greek objections.

Under the name change deal, "sincere" talks are due to take place to find "mutually accepted" solutions on commercial names and trade marks.

A committee of experts will be set up this year and will have three years to resolve potential disputes.

Greece's secretary general for trade Dimitris Avlonitis this week urged his country's traders to reach out to their counterparts in North Macedonia, and said he was "optimistic" that solutions would be found.

- 'Law will protect traders' -

"We have adequate tools," the secretary general told a news conference. "International law and European treaties can help businessmen protect their products."

Cars line up at customs station in Evzoni at the border of Greece and North Macedonia
Cars line up at customs station in Evzoni at the border of Greece and North Macedonia
SAKIS MITROLIDIS, AFP/File

The name issue could also impact on national elections scheduled for October, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras likely to face local wrath over the agreement he helped to broker.

North Macedonia has been a source of national antipathy and cultural rivalry to many northern Greeks -- but also home to cheap petrol, affordable dental care and casino entertainment just a border stop away.

"We're going to keep on calling them 'Skopia' (Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia). This is not going to change," said Thomas, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in the northern Greek city Thessaloniki.

"Besides, this is what they say themselves when they come to shop here, they call themselves Skopians, not Macedonians."

Protests against the name deal were held in both countries, and opinion polls suggest most Greeks were opposed to it.

And in a sign of continued tensions, there have been incidents where people have removed Macedonian licence plates from cars in the Greek north.

"Our soul hurts," Paschalina, a middle-aged woman driving to Skopje with three female friends, said of the name deal.

"There is only one Macedonia and it is Greek. What happened is unacceptable."

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