Greece ratifies new name for Macedonia

VIDEO: REUTERS
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras celebrates after the voting of the Prespes Agreement in Greek Parliament in Athens. The agreement was ratified by the Greek parliament with a majority of 153 votes, with 146 voting against and one deputy abstaining
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras celebrates after the voting of the Prespes Agreement in Greek Parliament in Athens. The agreement was ratified by the Greek parliament with a majority of 153 votes, with 146 voting against and one deputy abstaining with a vote of 'present'.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ATHENS/SKOPJE(AFP) - On Friday (Jan 25), Greek lawmakers ratified a landmark name change deal with neighbouring Macedonia, approving the new name "Republic of North Macedonia" for its northern neighbour two weeks after a similar vote by Macedonian lawmakers.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hailed the ratification by parliament in Athens as a "historic day".

"Today we write a new page for the Balkans. The hatred of nationalism, dispute and conflict will be replaced by friendship, peace and cooperation," Tsipras said on his Twitter page.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev also congratulated his Greek counterpart for a "historic victory".

"Congratulations my friend" Alexis Tsipras, Zaev said on Twitter. "Together with our peoples we reached a historic victory. Long live the Prespa Agreement! For eternal peace and progress of the Balkans and in Europe!"

The move should help end a row that has long poisoned relations between the neighbours and clear the path for Skopje to join the European Union and Nato.

The deal to rename Greece's northern neighbour the Republic of North Macedonia was brokered by Tsipras and Zaev in June.

It is an achievement that has seen both leaders nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize - even as it came at an immediate cost to Tsipras by sinking his coalition government and saw protests in both countries. The deal will end a bitter row that began in 1991 with the independence of Macedonia, which took the name of the history-rich northern Greek region that lies just across the border.

In addition to normalising relations between the two countries, implementation of the agreement will open the door for Macedonia to join the European Union and Nato, hitherto blocked by Athens' veto.

Critics say the agreement - which drops Greece's objections to an official Macedonian language and identity - opens the way for possible cultural usurpation and trade disputes. They note that just a few years back, Skopje enthusiastically sought to appropriate Alexander the Great, ancient king of Macedon and one of Greece's greatest heroes.

Here is some background on the dispute:

REJECTED FROM THE START

Greece rejects the name Macedonia, adopted by the country at its independence from the former Yugoslavia 27 years ago, as it is also that of a large Greek region that evokes national pride as the cradle of Alexander the Great's ancient empire.

Macedonia's international recognition is immediately stalled by Greece because of its name.

Besides claiming the title as part of its heritage and identity, Greece fears Skopje could harbour territorial ambitions over its own region of Macedonia just across the border.

A COUNTRY CALLED FYROM

It is only with the adoption of a provisional name - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) - that the country is finally admitted into the United Nations in 1993.

Most other nations, including Russia and the United States, later recognise its constitutional title, the Republic of Macedonia.

GREECE CLAMPS DOWN

In 1994, Greece imposes an economic embargo on Macedonia and prevents it from using the Greek port at Thessaloniki, Skopje's main trading post.

Greece also demands that Macedonia drop from its flag the golden sun of Vergina, claiming it as an ancient Greek symbol, as well as certain articles from its constitution.

A THAW

In 1995, the neighbours sign an accord in New York opening the way for a normalisation of trade and political ties but leaving the name dispute hanging.

They then open liaison offices in their respective capitals and a new Macedonian flag - with a different sun symbol - is raised for the first time at the United Nations.

In 2001, Greece expresses support for Skopje as it faces an armed conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels.

GREEK VETOES

After Macedonia becomes a candidate for EU membership in 2005, Greece blocks the start of negotiations, still rejecting its title.

In 2008 Macedonia is invited for Nato membership under its provisional name, but again faces a Greek veto.

Relations plummet with the erection of a huge statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje in 2011. Athens views it as an attempt to appropriate one of its greatest heroes.

MIGRANT TENSIONS

Athens in 2016 accuses Skopje of excessive use of force against hundreds of migrants, many fleeing the war in Syria.

BREAKTHROUGH

Soon after his election in May 2017, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev promises a new push to settle the name dispute as he relaunches the drive for EU and Nato membership.

Negotiations restart in January 2018 under UN auspices, despite strong opposition from nationalists in both countries.

REPUBLIC OF NORTH MACEDONIA

In June, the two sides settle on "Republic of North Macedonia".

A September referendum among Macedonians shows 90 per cent agree with the name change - but two-thirds of registered voters shun the ballot.

In October, Macedonia's Parliament, which must approve constitutional changes, votes by a razor-thin majority to begin the process of renaming the country.

The Parliament in December votes for a second reading of the four amendments required to the Constitution, with the final vote passed two weeks ago. The motion receives the required two-thirds majority by just one vote.

On Jan 25, Greek lawmakers voted by a narrow majority to ratify the name change.