March 16, 2016 / 2:59 PM / in a year

Greece plays down minister's 'Macedonia' blunder, says focus on migration crisis

Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas talks to the media at central Athens's Victoria Square, where many refugees and migrants had set up following their arrival in Athens, Greece, October 1, 2015.Alkis Konstantinidis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece played down on Wednesday a gaffe by its migration minister who failed to use the full name of northern neighbor the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and said his focus must remain on tackling an escalating migration crisis.

Athens has long refused to accept its neighbor as just 'Macedonia' and the name dispute has frozen Skopje's efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Some Greeks fear accepting 'Macedonia' could provide a basis for territorial claims by that country on a northern Greek province of the same name.

Yannis Mouzalas inadvertently referred to the country as Macedonia during a late-night interview on Tuesday. He quickly apologized, but faced calls for his resignation from Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who said it was a serious matter for his right-wing Independent Greeks party, junior coalition partner of the ruling left-wing Syriza party.

The government defended Mouzalas, saying the row was a dangerous distraction from his efforts to deal with Europe's worst migration crisis since World War Two.

"We're not talking about a government crisis," government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili told a regular news briefing. "We're talking about a verbal faux pas."

She said Mouzalas had "put all of his efforts, beyond human limits" to tackle the migration crisis, adding that any decision on his fate would be taken after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras returns from an EU leaders' summit in Brussels on Friday.

EMOTIONAL ISSUE

Many Greeks feel a strong emotional tie to the name Macedonia, used historically to describe the birthplace of Alexander the Great and part of ancient Greece.

Kammenos said he had conveyed his concerns to Tsipras.

"I continue to support this government and Tsipras until the end but I have red lines. Since the minister recognizes that he made a huge gaffe, he should go home," Kammenos said.

The ruling coalition has just a three-seat majority in the 300-member parliament and needs the Independent Greeks party on side to pass reforms under a third financial bailout clinched last year.

The spat is unlikely to wreck the coalition but reflects underlying differences between two parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Macedonia lies on the now closed Balkan migration route that refugees have used on their way from Greece to wealthier western Europe. The closure has led to logjams along the border, with more than 12,000 refugees and migrants camped there.

Macedonia has accused Greece of doing too little to manage the migration crisis despite receiving EU funds.

On Tuesday Macedonia said it had trucked about 1,500 migrants back to Greece after they forced their way across the border. Greek authorities said there had been no official contact with Macedonia, so they could not confirm the return.

"If we do not start to cooperate (with Greece) as two neighboring countries, it is certain that these incidents will be repeated and get more complicated," Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov said of the incident on Tuesday.

Additional reporting Karolina Tagaris and Angeliki Koutantou in Athens and Kole Casule in Skopje; Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Gareth Jones

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