The government of Macedonia has struck an agreement with Greece to change the country’s name, bringing an end to a long-running dispute between the two nations.
Greece has long objected to the use of the name Macedonia because it was shared by the ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander of Macedon, and is also used by an adjacent Greek region.
As a result of Greece’s objections Macedonia was only admitted to the UN under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after it gained its independence in 1991 from the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Successive Greek governments have threatened to block Macedonia’s entry to the European Union and Nato under its original constitutional name. Macedonia is a candidate state for EU membership.
Under the deal the country’s name would be changed to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, to reflect the existence of the Greek region of Macedonia on the other side of the border and the cultural claim Greeks see over it. The name would be used both internally by the government and externally when conducting foreign affairs.
The accord was finalised during a phone call between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev on Tuesday, and in return for the name change Greece would lift its vetoes on the country joining the EU and Nato.
Both countries’ parliaments need to ratify the deal, and Macedonia is expected to hold a referendum on the issue. Nationalists in both countries are opposed to compromise and could yet derail the accord. The agreement is set to be formally signed on Saturday at Lake Prespa, which straddles the country’s border, and that of neighbouring Albania.
“The name change will be implemented not only in the country's international relations but also domestically,” Mr Tsipras said in a televised press conference, while Mr Zaev, speaking separately, told his countrymen: “There is no way back.” The PM called on the opposition to back the name change and said it would guarantee access to the EU and Nato.
In Greece, the right wing Independent Greeks party, which is in Mr Tsipras's governing coalition partner, has said it would oppose the agreement in a parliamentary vote – meaning the left wing prime minister will need to seek support from political opponents.
Negotiations, which have been on and off for decades, have intensified in recent months under the oversight of EU, US, and German diplomats.
Ancient Macedonia was the cradle of warrior king Alexander’s empire, but under the Romans the province of Macedonia was expanded to include territory spanning Macedonia, as well as Bulgaria and Albania.
Some Greeks have accused Macedonians, who speak a Slavic language, of appropriating aspects of Greek culture. An eight-storey high statue resembling Alexander in the Macedonian capital of Skopje caused a fuss in 2011. Macedonian authorities insist that the statue is of a “warrior on a horse” rather than the ancient Greek hero.
As a goodwill gesture preceding the deal, in February of this year the Macedonian government renamed Skopje's airport, which was previously known as Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, to Skopje International Airport.
In a joint statement, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said: “We wholeheartedly congratulate Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev for their determination and leadership in reaching this historic agreement between their countries, which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of south-east Europe.
“This achievement belongs to the leaders of the two countries and their teams, but first and foremost it belongs to all the citizens of both countries, and of Europe as a whole.”
They added that they expected the European Council to endorse the European Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations with the EU candidate state. The European Council will next meet later this month.
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