The man who has focused on one word for 23 years

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It’s 26 years since Yugoslavia broke into pieces and the republic of Macedonia came into being. In all that time, the new country has lacked an official, internationally agreed name, because of Greece’s objections to the name “Macedonia”. And for nearly all of that time, explains Alex Marshall, one man has been working to solve the problem.

Matthew Nimetz wants to make something clear – he has not spent every waking moment of the past 23 years thinking about one word: “Macedonia”.

“I have probably thought about it more than anyone else – including in the country,” says the 78-year-old US diplomat. “But I have to disappoint anyone that thinks it’s my full-time job.”

Since 1994, Nimetz has been trying to negotiate an end to arguably the world’s strangest international dispute, in which Greece is objecting to Macedonia’s name and refusing to let it join either Nato or the EU until it’s changed.

Greece says the name “Macedonia” suggests that the country has territorial ambitions over Greece’s own Macedonia – a province in the north of the country – and is a blatant attempt to lay claim to Greece’s national heritage.

It should be called something like “Skopje” instead, Greece argues – Skopje being Macedonia’s capital city.

Macedonia, by contrast, argues that you can trace its people back to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, once ruled by Alexander the Great – and that the name “Macedonia” is therefore the obvious choice.

One upshot is that travellers entering northern Greece from the Republic of Macedonia, and those crossing the border in the opposite direction, are both greeted by roadside signs welcoming them to Macedonia.

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Welcome to Macedonia: The Greek version of the sign

When Nimetz began his work on the dispute he was serving as US President Bill Clinton’s special envoy, but since the end of 1999 he’s been the personal envoy of the UN secretary-general – his task to nudge the two sides slowly towards a resolution, for a token salary of $1 per year.

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