Greece, Macedonia sign deal to change country's name

Parliament in Skopje ratifies the agreement opening the door to EU and NATO accession

Photo: Photo: EPA Greek PM Alexis Tsipras (back- R) and Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev (back- L) watch foreign ministers Nikos Kotzias (front- R) and Nikola Dimitrov (front- L) signing the name agreement.

Setting aside almost three decades of confrontation, Greece and Macedonia signed on 17 June an agreement on the new name of the former Yugoslav republic, thus paving the way for its possible accession to the EU and NATO, news wires reported.

Setting aside almost three decades of confrontation, Greece and Macedonia signed on 17 June an agreement on the new name of the former Yugoslav republic, thus paving the way for its possible accession to the EU and NATO, news wires reported. Despite angry protests on both sides of the border, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed an accord to rename the country the “Republic of North Macedonia”.

The ceremony was held in the idyllic setting of Prespes, a lake region that borders Greece, Macedonia and Albania in the presence of the two countries' leaders as well as EU and UN officials. “Very few believed we would be able to leave behind 26 years of unfruitful dispute,” Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, who survived a no-confidence vote a day before the signing, said. “We have a historic responsibility that this deal is not held in abeyance,” Tsipras said, as he and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev received a standing ovation.

Zaev, who arrived from across the lake on a speedboat, said the two neighbours had “moved mountains” by reaching the accord. It was “a dignified solution acceptable to both sides,” he said, calling on the two countries to “step out of the past and look to the future”. “Our peoples want peace, we will be partners and allies,” he pointed out.

Veteran UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, who has overseen talks for a quarter-century, described the agreement as a fair and honourable deal. It was, he said, an example of “how neighbours can solve a problem if they really work at it”. “Today is my birthday,” said Nimetz. “I told my family this year I don't need any gifts because two PMs are going to give me a big gift.”

The accord, however, was met with massive protests in both countries. In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, police fired stun grenades and tear gas last Sunday night to disperse a rally by several hundred nationalists. Some even chanted “Macedonia, Macedonia we will give our lives for Macedonia”. Across the border, up to 70% of Greeks object to the name compromise, according to an opinion poll by the Proto Thema newspaper. In Psarades, the tiny lakeside community where the deal was signed, the church bell tolled in mourning, draped in a Greek flag.

The deal overcame last Wednesday its first hurdle after being ratified by Macedonia's parliament at a plenary session that was boycotted by the main opposition party. MPs voted 69-0 to back the agreement which changes the country's formal name. The opposition nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party boycotted the session. Ahead of the vote, PM Zaev defended the “historic” accord, saying it represents a dignified and acceptable solution for both sides. “We did not give up anything to anyone,” Zaev insisted.

The accord still needs to be ratified by Greece's parliament and to be approved at a non-binding referendum in Macedonia in the autumn. Macedonia's president has already vowed to block the deal, and was threatened with impeachment by the ruling coalition. Once Macedonians vote in favour of the agreement, the lawmakers will have to approve a constitutional amendment formally changing the country's name.

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