Macedonian PM says it’s Greece’s turn after his country ratified historic deal to rename itself

The Macedonian Prime Minister has called on Greece to follow suit after his parliament ratified a deal that would see the country renamed Republic of North Macedonia.  

Macedonia passed the deal as an amendment to its constitution on Friday, in line with an agreement with Greece to resolve a three-decades long dispute.

Zoran Zaev said that lawmakers had ‘made history’ and that he expects neighbouring Greece to be the first to sign the accession protocol which would finally enable Macedonia to join NATO. 

The republic of just over two million people was formally invited to join the NATO alliance in 2008, but its membership was vetoed by Greece, where there is strong opposition to Macedonia’s name. 

Many Greeks say it implies territorial aspirations toward Greece’s identically-named province in the north of the country and appropriates its historical heritage. 

The historic deal was originally reached in June, but Macedonia will not adopt its new name until it has also been ratified by Greece’s parliament. A vote is expected in Athens later in the month.   

Speaking to reporters in the capital of Skopje today, Prime Minister Zaev said that Greece has ‘got a new friend now North Macedonia,’ and he hopes the two nations will build up trust and open ‘many new windows’ for cooperation.  

‘I know how difficult that was… we are putting the bitterness in the past and we are looking now proudly to the future,’ Zaev said.   

But in Greece, the upcoming vote on the name-change deal has soured relations between the ruling coalition partners.

The radical left-wing Syriza and the right-wing populist Independent Greeks party joined forces in 2015, with the shared aims of solving the then-debt crisis and fighting corruption.

But while Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants to rubber stamp the deal with Macedonia, defense Minister and Independent Greeks’ leader Panos Kammenos is vehemently opposed. 

Kammenos has repeatedly threatened to pull his lawmakers out of the government and said he will never vote for the deal when it comes to parliament. 

Meanwhile the issue continues to be a contentious subject among voters in both countries. A protest against the name change took place outside the Macedonian Parliament during its Friday session, and a Greek prosecutor on Saturday ordered a probe into alleged threats against pro-deal lawmakers.   

The preliminary investigation was ordered two Greek news websites reported that lawmakers had received threatening text messages demanding they vote against the deal. 

Tsipras and Kammenos are to meet Sunday morning to discuss their differences.

The coalition has a razor-thin majority with 153 seats in the 300 member parliament and its main opposition, the New Democracy party, has vowed to block the deal. 

But Tsipras has the unquestioned backing of the 145-strong Syriza parliamentary group, and has repeatedly expressed certainty that he will find the 151 votes to ensure ratification of the deal by a majority in the 300-member Parliament.

Indeed, several lawmakers from small center-left parties, as well as at least two from Kammenos’ party, have indicated they are ready to give their assent.    

The Macedonian parliament’s ratification has been hailed by several foreign leaders, including NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Adding his congratulations late Friday, was Matthew Nimetz, the U.N. Secretary-General’s personal envoy on the name dispute since 1999, who said that the agreement is a move towards ‘a firmer basis for peace and security in the Balkans.’

‘I wish to congratulate the (Macedonian) parliament and the country’s citizens for this accomplishment and for the democratic manner in which this important process was undertaken,’ Nimetz said.

A government spokeswoman said that later in the week the timeline for ratification will be clearer, but the vote could possibly take place this month. 

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