Macedonia's parliament has narrowly approved a deal with Athens to change its name and open up its path to EU and Nato membership, despite fierce criticism from the country's nationalist opposition.
After many hours of delays and in a rancourous atmosphere, prime minister Zoran Zaev’s government secured the 80 seats it needed for a two-thirds majority in parliament, having persuaded several deputies to break ranks with the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE.
The outcome is likely to spark a furious reaction from the nationalists, who accused the government of using bribery and threats to win deputies’ support, and who came under heavy pressure from EU and US officials to back the agreement.
The vote on Friday night was crucial for the deal, but it must clear more legislative hurdles to be ratified in Macedonia, after which it is must also be approved by a fractious parliament in Greece.
The Balkan neighbours agreed in June that Macedonia would take the name North Macedonia in exchange for Greece lifting its veto on the ex-Yugoslav republic’s bid to join the EU and Nato.
The dispute has paralysed their relations since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, with Athens claiming that its use of the same name as a province of northern Greece implies a territorial claim on the area and the legacy of its ancient ruler, Alexander the Great.
More than 91 per cent of people who voted in a consultative referendum on the issue last month backed the accord, but turnout fell well short of the legal threshold, prompting critics in Macedonia and Greece to declare the deal dead.
Mr Zaev called for the final decision to be made in parliament, but until Friday night it seemed that the government did not have sufficient votes; if the deal had been rejected, snap elections were expected.
Mr Zaev and western allies see the agreement as a historic chance for Macedonia to mend ties with Greece and accelerate its integration with the EU and Nato; critics in both countries, by contrast, call the pact a betrayal of their respective national interests.
"I am confident that lawmakers of all political forces are aware of the huge opportunity and responsibility they are facing today," EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted yesterday. "This is the time to put party interests behind and act in the interest of the country and its people!"
US assistant secretary of state Wess Mitchell told VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski this week that Washington was "disappointed" with his party's opposition to the name deal, and warned that a better agreement "is not likely to come again for years, if not decades."
Russia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said the scale of western “meddling” in Macedonia’s affairs “crossed all conceivable boundaries.”