A historic agreement to rename Macedonia and open its path to EU and Nato membership could be derailed by a bitter rivalry between the country's main parties, which accuse each other of treachery over the deal with Greece.
The accord reached last month must be approved in a referendum in Macedonia, but talks on crucial details of the vote between the ruling Social Democrats and their nationalist VMRO-DPMNE opponents are mired in acrimony.
The parties have yet to agree on the phrasing of the question for the referendum and when it will be held, with the government keen to secure opposition support to boost the deal’s chances of winning approval in the deeply divided country.
Macedonia agreed last month to change its name to North Macedonia, in return for Greece lifting its objections to the country’s Nato and EU ambitions, but VMRO-DPMNE and its supporters call the deal a shameful capitulation to Athens.
Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev says the nationalists are holding the nation's future hostage to party interests, by refusing to sign off on the referendum until former top VMRO-DPMNE figures are given amnesty from prosecution.
“The law is equal for all, an amnesty for political crime is impossible and we will not yield to pressure and deviate from the rule of law,” Mr Zaev said on Tuesday following the collapse of the latest round of talks.
After ruling for a decade VMRO-DPMNE was ousted last year, as a vast spying and corruption scandal engulfed the party and country, triggering protests and criminal cases against ex-officials, including former premier Nikola Gruevski.
Several nationalist deputies and other people associated with the party are also now on trial over a bloody incident inside parliament in April 2017, when a mob stormed the building and beat Mr Zaev and other politicians.
Mr Zaev claims that VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickovski has been offered compromise on several issues, but still refuses to back the referendum.
“Instead of boarding the train bound for the EU and Nato, he chose to stay on the dark side of history,” Mr Zaev said.
VMRO-DPMNE denies seeking an amnesty, and on Wednesday accused Mr Zaev and his party of “choosing crime and personal enrichment” over “the highest state and national interests” by agreeing to the “deletion” of Macedonia’s name.
Moscow also opposes the deal, and Greece this month ordered the expulsion of two Russian diplomats accused of fomenting protests against it.
A Nato delegation visited Skopje on Wednesday to discuss the accession process with Mr Zaev and other top officials.
James Mackey, head of the office of Euro-Atlantic and global partnership at Nato headquarters, said Macedonia could become the alliance's 30th member in about 18 months, if all hurdles – including the referendum – are overcome.