Macedonia seeks final approval for name deal with Greece

Athens has yet to clear pact that would help renamed ‘North Macedonia’ join Nato and EU

Demonstrators wave old Macedonian flags at a protest against a process of renaming the country North Macedonia. Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP

Demonstrators wave old Macedonian flags at a protest against a process of renaming the country North Macedonia. Photograph: Robert Atanasovski/AFP

 

Macedonia’s government hopes to secure final approval from the country’s parliament this week to change its name to North Macedonia, in a deal with Greece that would allow the Balkan state to move towards Nato and EU membership.

Under the so-called Prespa agreement signed last June, Macedonia pledged to adopt the new name in return for Greece lifting its longstanding veto on the former Yugoslav republic’s ambitions to join the two alliances.

Athens has blocked those hopes since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, alleging that the country’s use of the same name as a region of northern Greece implied a territorial claim to the area and the legacy of its ancient ruler, Alexander the Great.

Nationalists in both countries fiercely oppose the deal, but the Social Democrat-led Macedonian government believes it has won the support of enough opposition deputies to secure the required 80 votes in Skopje’s 120-seat assembly.

Constitutional changes

“I have information that at least 80 deputies . . . are convinced that Macedonia’s future is exclusively inside Nato and the EU, that this depends on the Prespa agreement, and that the required constitutional changes will be completed by Friday,” local media quoted Social Democrat secretary-general Aleksandar Kiracovski as saying.

Parliament was due to start debating the constitutional changes on Wednesday, but discussions were delayed by several hours for unexplained reasons and it was not clear if they would be postponed until Thursday.

The main VMRO-DPMNE opposition party is expected to boycott the debate, and its leaders were part of a crowd of several hundred people who protested against the Prespa deal outside parliament on Wednesday.

Critics describe the agreement as treason and a betrayal of Macedonia’s national interests and identity.

Threat of prosecution

They also accuse the western-backed government of using the threat of prosecution to blackmail VMRO-DPMNE deputies into backing the deal.

Opposition politicians could benefit from an amnesty introduced last month for some people involved in a bloody incident inside parliament in April 2017, when a nationalist mob beat prime minister Zoran Zaev and several of his allies.

The government already secured the required two-thirds majority for the deal in an initial vote in parliament last October, just weeks after a referendum on the issue failed to attract the required 50 per cent of votes needed for it to be valid.

The West strongly backs the accord and hopes to bring Macedonia into Nato this year, to deny Russia a potential foothold in the strategic Balkans; Moscow has accused the Skopje government and its allies of using “dirty manipulations” to secure approval for the deal.

If Macedonia fully ratifies the agreement, then Greece’s fractious parliament will vote on it; German chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to reiterate her support for the pact during a visit to Athens this week.