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Greece, Macedonia strike deal on name dispute

June 12, 2018

Greece and Macedonia have reached an agreement in their long-running dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav republic. Senior officials from both the EU and NATO have welcomed the agreement.

 Macedonian flag is seen on a big electronic billboard behind the fountain of the monument 'Warrior on a horse' at the main square of the capitol Skopje
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Licovski

Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FRYOM) on Tuesday announced an historic agreement to resolve a decades-long name dispute that has hampered relations between the two countries and left Macedonia with its rather unwieldy formal name.

Ministers from the both countries agreed on "Republic of Northern Macedonia" as the Balkan country's new official name. 

Greece's Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia's Zoran Zaev announced the agreement shortly after speaking by phone.

Read more: Macedonian PM says name change to be put to a public vote

Tsipras went on to tell Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos during a televised meeting: "I'm happy because we have a good deal which covers all the preconditions set by the Greek side."

"This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors and puts an end to the irredentism which their current constitutional name implies," he added.

Zaev described the agreement with Greece as a "historic agreement of the century."

"We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute ... that has been drowning the country," he said, going on to insist that the deal "will strengthen the Macedonian identity."

The deal states that Macedonia will amend its constitution to reflect its new name. Meanwhile, Greece has reportedly agreed to stop blocking Macedonian requests to join the European Union and NATO military alliance.

Macedonia's Dimitrov with DW

What's in a name?

The dispute over Macedonia's name has been an issue ever since the country broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. It declared its independence under the name Republic of Macedonia.

However, Greece, whose northern region is also called Macedonia and borders the Balkan country, objected to the name and demanded it be changed.

Both sides have laid claim to the name. Ancient Macedonia was the cradle of Alexander the Great's empire — he was known in his time as Alexander III of Macedon. Under the Romans, however, the province of Macedonia was expanded to include territory in modern-day Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.

The longstanding row has hindered Macedonian hopes of joining the EU or NATO.

Read more: Macedonia: What's in a name?

EU and NATO officials welcome name truce

After initial signs of a possible breakthrough earlier this year, Greece and Macedonia had been racing to agree on a settlement ahead of the upcoming EU leaders' summit in late June and a NATO summit slated for mid-July.

Senior officials from both the EU and NATO were quick to welcome the agreement. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he hoped the deal "would consolidate peace and stability across the wider Western Balkans."

Meanwhile, the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc's ambitions in the Western Balkans was "a crucial incentive for this agreement, in the spirit of good neighborly cooperation."

Johannes Hahn, commissioner for EU enlargement, suggested that accession negotiations with Skopje could begin as soon as this month.

The road to 'Northern Macedonia' — a timeline

According to Tsipras, the deal will first be signed by the foreign ministers from the two countries, before being ratified by Macedonia's parliament. Athens will then back NATO's invitation for Macedonia to join the alliance and allow for EU accession talks to begin, provided the Balkan nation completes its promised constitutional changes.

"In other words, if the constitutional amendment is not successfully completed, then the invitation to join NATO will be automatically rescinded and the accession talks with the European Union will not start," the Greek prime minister said.

However, both leaders face significant political and public dissent on the home front. 

Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose right-wing Independent Greeks party forms part of Tsipras' governing coalition, indicated he would oppose an agreement in a parliamentary vote, leaving the prime minister to seek support from political opponents.

In Skopje, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov said earlier in the day that he remained opposed to amending the country's constitution to reflect the name change.

The name dispute has also prompted several protests in Athens, Thessaloniki and Skopje. Thousands of patriots and nationalists from both sides have voiced their anger over any prospective concessions from their respective governments.

dm/msh (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)