Macedonia name change vote and solve a decades-long dispute with Greece

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Macedonia name change vote and solve a decades-long dispute with Greece.

The Republic of Macedonia cleared its biggest hurdle to joining NATO and the European Union by passing an amendment to change its name and solve a decades-long dispute with Greece.

The parliamentary vote shifts the advantage to the West in its struggle for influence with Cold War foe Russia over the Balkans, Europe’s most volatile region. It also fulfills an agreement struck last year in which Greece pledged to lift its vetoes on the Balkan state’s bids to join the world’s largest trading bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev won a two-thirds majority in the chamber Friday to rename the ex-Yugoslav country to “The Republic of North Macedonia,” parliament Speaker Talat Xhaferi said in Skopje. Now the baton passes to Athens, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is facing resistance from nationalist opponents to his pledge to ratify the deal and sign off on Macedonia’s NATO accession.

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Read how Greece’s government is wobbling over the vote on Macedonia

“This is a big deal, even more significant at a time when there’s uncertainty in democracies in the West, in the future of Europe and in the role of the U.S.,” Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said by phone. “Tsipras has already taken the tough decisions in the political barbs by doing the agreement in the first place, so he’s got every incentive to follow through.”

Although his ruling coalition lacked sufficient votes, Zaev found backing among parties representing the country’s ethnic-Albanian minority and independents who defected from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which rejected the plan.

“We have taken ownership of our destiny,” The Republic of Macedonia’s foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said after the vote. “We have proven that miracles are possible. We demonstrated that we are European, not only geographically, but also in terms of European values. I am proud to be on the right side of history.

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VMRO-DPMNE boycotted the vote and President Gjorge Ivanov, their ally, has refused to sign off on the deal. Zaev has said that the president’s green light isn’t required, but in a sign that not all of his compatriots support the plan, several hundred people protested in front of parliament, Channel 5 reported.

Another opponent is Russia, which sees eastern Europe as its sphere of influence. It objects to the expansion of NATO into the Balkans and has accused the U.S. and the EU of helping force the name change.
The dispute centered around Greece’s insistence that the name “Macedonia” only applies to its northern province, the ancient stronghold of Alexander the Great. Tsipras faces a tough task to overcome his nationalist partners in the ruling coalition. They’ve threatened to leave the government if he manages to push through his part of the agreement.

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EU and NATO leaders have urged both countries to quickly follow through as soon as possible. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in October that Macedonia’s accession talks may be completed by end-January. And earlier on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to detractors in the Greek government to back the deal through during a visit to Athens.

“This is in all of our interests that this problem can be resolved, that the western Balkan region can stabilize,” she told reporters. “We’ve never been as close to resolving this question as we are now.”

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