By Ivana Sekularac
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Macedonia and Greece have agreed to form working groups led by foreign ministers to hold talks on a solution to the 25-year dispute over the name of the ex-Yugoslav Republic, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told Reuters on Friday.
Success in resolving the issue would open Macedonia's path towards NATO and EU membership, which has been blocked by Athens which says the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim over Greece's own northern region of that name.
The new government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev which took over last May pledged to work closer with Greece to bring the 2 million-strong nation closer to EU and NATO membership.
Dimitrov met his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias, on Thursday in Thessaloniki to discuss ways to move forward in the long-standing dispute.
"We parted convinced that there is a will on both sides to move forward," Dimitrov told Reuters in an interview.
He said that both parties agreed to form working groups led by foreign ministers to directly negotiate possible solutions to the name dispute.
"I expect the first meeting could come as early as February," Dimitrov said.
The talks on the name dispute are mediated by a United Nations envoy, U.S diplomat Matthew Nimmitz, who is due to meet chief negotiators from both countries next Wednesday. Foreign ministers have not been involved in negotiations directly.
Under a 1995 accord, Greece agreed to allow the country to be referred to internationally only as "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" until the dispute is resolved.
That is the formal name under which Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations in 1993, and still the name NATO, the EU and other bodies use for it, even though it broke away in 1991 from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.
"We have a huge responsibility," Dimitrov said adding that Macedonia is aware of concerns its neighbours may have.
"It is clear that the identity is very important for us. We have to find a way to convince our Greek colleagues that there is a clear distinction between our country and a region which includes northern Greece," he said
Dimitrov said that Macedonia, which was granted European Union candidacy status in 2005, hopes to set a date to start membership talks in June. It is also seeking an invitation to join NATO, which already includes most of its neighbors.
"I am a cautious optimist," Dimitrov said referring to the resolution of the name dispute.
Greek government officials have suggested Greece would try to focus on brokering an agreement which calls for a compound name with a geographical qualifier.
Macedonia avoided the violence that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, but was later rocked by an ethnic Albanian insurgency that almost tore the country apart in 2001.
The country's ethnic Macedonian majority speaks a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian, while a large Albanian minority accounts for a third of the population.
Macedonia is also the name of the largest and second most-populous province in Greece, and of the ancient northern Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Peter Graff)