Macedonian PM urges critics to back name deal with Greece
Zoran Zaev asks parliament to choose between ‘a European Macedonia or poverty’
Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev: require the support of at least nine opposition deputies. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA
Macedonia’s government has urged opposition deputies to set aside bitter political rivalries and approve a western-backed deal with Athens to change the country’s name and boost its hopes of joining the EU and Nato.
Prime minister Zoran Zaev made the appeal in Skopje’s parliament at the start of a debate on constitutional changes foreseen in the historic agreement, which was signed in June but failed to win convincing support in a referendum last month.
More than 91 per cent of Macedonians who took part in the non-binding referendum backed the deal, but only 37 per cent of registered voters went the polls, well short of the 50 per cent threshold.
The opposition VMRO-DPMNE nationalist party said the referendum’s failure should be the death knell for the deal, but the government and top EU and US officials want parliament to decide its fate.
Mr Zaev’s Social Democrats and their coalition partners control 71 of the 120 seats in the assembly, and so require the support of at least nine opposition deputies to secure the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution.
“Let’s show the world that above all of our domestic political misunderstandings and conflicts, we have a joint interest – the future of our country,” Mr Zaev said on Monday.
“I call on deputies to think and look to the future, [and consider] whether they want a European Macedonia or isolation, poverty and uncertainty.”
Mr Zaev said it was time to overcome the rancour of a political crisis that eventually toppled VMRO-DPMNE last year after more than a decade in power, and an attack in parliament last April that saw a nationalist mob beat the premier and his allies.
“Here is a chance to forgive ourselves. Let’s extend our hands,” he said, in a statement some interpreted as a possible offer of leniency or even amnesty for people who are being prosecuted for the attack.
The deal would see Macedonia renamed 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 relations between the Balkan states since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, with Athens claiming that its neighbour’s 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.
The parliamentary debate could take up to 10 days before a vote is held on the deal, and Mr Zaev has pledged to call snap elections if the accord is rejected.
“Our position is clear – the EU fully supports the achieved agreement,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told Macedonian news agency MIA at the weekend.
“It is a unique opportunity for reconciliation in the western Balkans, and may not repeat itself. I hope that all sides will understand the importance of the moment and secure the future of the country within the EU.”
Last week, US vice-president Mike Pence told Mr Zaev: “You have my continuous support in this important moment for your country.”