Macedonian parliamentarians have voted in favor of starting the process to change the country's name to North Macedonia. The name change would clear the path for the country's entry into NATO and possibly the EU.
After a delay of more than 10 hours, lawmakers in Macedonia voted 80 to 39 on Friday in favor of the proposal to change the constitution, a key step in accepting the deal struck with neighbor Greece back in June.
"The parliament adopted the proposal by the government to start the procedure for changes in the constitution," parliament speaker Talat Xhaferi said after the late-night vote.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's Social Democratic government had initially struggled to win the necessary support of conservative opposition members. The final vote, however, saw Zaev just achieve the necessary two-thirds majority needed inside the 120-seat house.
Zaev had said he would call for early elections if lawmakers did not vote to start the name change process
Some conservative lawmakers accused the government of offering bribes of between €250,000 and €2 million (between $288,000 and $2.3 million) in exchange for votes. Zaev's party denied the allegation and said it would respond with legal action.
Zaev had promised to call early elections if the government had lost the vote.
Greece dispute close to resolved
Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, had reached a deal in June calling for Macedonia to change its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Athens would in return stop blocking its neighbor from joining NATO and opening EU membership talks.
Greece has argued that the name "Macedonia" implied territorial claims to a Greek province of the same name. The name change would end a 27-year dispute that began after Macedonia emerged from the disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991.
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Following Friday's vote, Tsipras took to Twitter to congratulate Zaev. "Tonight's vote is a big step towards our common success. A very important step to a peaceful and prosperous future for our people!" the Greek prime minister said.
Conservatives in Macedonia vehemently oppose the name change and boycotted a referendum last month on the issue. The referendum failed to reach a turnout hurdle of 50 percent, leaving the issue to parliamentarians to decide.
The amendment process must now formally start within the next two weeks. The procedure could be lengthy, however, and requires several votes.
Once Macedonia formally changes its constitution, Greece's lawmakers will also have to vote on the deal. It remains unclear whether that will come to pass, however, as several nationalist Greek lawmakers oppose allowing Macedonia to use the name in any form.
dm/sms (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)