Zoran Zaev waded into the controversy over whether Macedonians can mention the fact that there are ethnic Macedonians living in Greece. Under the Prespa treaty he signed, Macedonia is not allowed to interfere in Greek internal matters and as his Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov found out, merely mentioning the Macedonian community in Greece qualifies as interference.

Dimitrov used Macedonian to describe Greeks who identify as Macedonians, but refused to use the word to describe actual Macedonians, even though his family originates from the region of Aegean Macedonia. Zaev spokesman Mile Bosnjakovski tried to go further and said that “there is a certain category of citizens in the Republic of Greece who don’t speak Greek, they speak a different language, but we are not those who should determine what language they use”, and this caused outrage in Greece.

In an interview with the recently renamed “Media Information Agency” MIA, Zaev carefully avoided the question, lest he angers the Greeks.

The treaty is clear. If we follow the spirit of friendship we will easily understand each other. First, it is a fact that our language is the Macedonian language, and that is accepted in the treaty. It is also a fact that this is a language from the group of Slavic languages. Also a scientific fact. It is also the language of all citizens who live in North Macedonia and in the diaspora. But, that is different from the Hellenic cultural heritage and their traditions. Here we made a distinction. And in the spirit of building good neighborly relations and friendship we must show understanding for these issues. This is what Minister Dimitrov explained and I ultimately said that identity issues are personal, they are something that we all carry in our chest and nobody can change that, Zaev told MIA.

Greece already forced Macedonia to amend its Constitution once to explicitly say that it will not interfere in Greek internal affairs – understood as asking the Greek state to finally allow ethnic Macedonians to freely speak the Macedonian language and educate their children in Macedonian. The issue was brought to the forefront after a BBC report detailed the abuse and systemic repression which Macedonians have faced in Greece over the decades. A strong motivating factor in Greek policy to reject the creation of a Macedonian state was the fear that it would energize Macedonians living in Greece to ask for greater minority rights.

But, in his interview, Zaev makes it clear that his Government will not even acknowledge the existence of the Macedonian community or name them as such.

It is up to Greece to comment on this issue. Our carelessness could cause unwanted situations and we politicians should believe in the clear and precise treaty we have and implement it and leave it up to the citizens of the two countries, so I leave it to Greece to comment on this issue, they have their way of dealing with things, we respect that, they are our strategic partner, Zaev added.